by Alison Coluccio
The Society for Lending Comforts to the Sick was three years old in 1909 when the earliest surviving annual report was written. The object of the Society, as stated in the report, “shall be to loan any medical or surgical appliances or articles of comfort to the sick in their own homes.” Among the forty-four listed items were a Bombay water cooler, glass drinking tubes, and a pus basin. And I couldn’t swear that we don’t still have those around here somewhere, maybe in a box in the attic.
The barn that houses the items available for loan sits next to our cottage on a hill in Smithtown. Our kitchen window looks out over the driveway, so that in the course of the evening, we can stop making dinner, throw on a jacket and walk over to help anyone who pulls up. We come home regularly to commodes on our back stoop, or bags of bedpans and Depends, under a teepee of crutches, sitting by the front door. One day I came home to find fourteen wheelchairs lining the side of the house, all without working footrests.
Though we try to discard the unfixable, and fix what we can, in the three years that my husband and I have managed the daily operations of the Society, we haven’t fully cleaned out the barn. The items we have now, like the drinking tubes, run the way of plastic, the wheelchairs have become lighter, or electric, the hospital beds now come apart in the middle and stack along the wall. Walkers are aluminum and fold into neat rows, and the four and a half pairs of crutches the Society boasted of in 1909 have multiplied about tenfold, become adjustable and aluminum, and hang from the walls in various sizes. At least one visitor has walked in looking around and said, “My God, it’s like Lourdes in here.”
Indeed it is somewhat a grotto of the discarded. We don’t boast of our healings, in fact we haven’t had even one that I know of, and comfort is itself a commodity hard to quantify, but whatever we offer is free of charge. Our items mostly come as donations, things purchased and used, in some cases for years, in others not nearly long enough; before the user either got better or didn’t, and the item was no longer useful. We’ve had some items returned to us, their wheels thick with spider webs, others given to us by family members still in dress clothes from the funeral. We know that the act of coming to us with an item to return or donate because its seat is too empty, is one that can bestow even more comfort than the item ever did in its usefulness.
The reincarnation of a cane, as I strip its metal shaft of a nametag, can be its own miracle. I wash it down with a noxious disinfectant, check it for wobbliness, its rubber foot for wear, maybe spray some WD-40 on its adjusting buttons and I hang it on the wall. Even tonight it could find its new owner, or it might gather some new dust up there, but sooner or later it finds its way to a dapper gentleman who’s left his in a shopping cart or driven away with it on the roof of his car. Maybe it goes to a sweet smiling woman on the mend from a hip replacement, along with a cushion to ease her favorite chair.
In spite of the physical pain, our visitors often shower us in smiles. The surliest are the ones whose pain is in watching their mother slip and fall again and again, or in holding their husband’s hand as his Alzheimer’s progresses. They know that what we offer them is free, but it won’t change the inevitable and they are mad; mad at us, mad at a spot of rust on the only shower chair we have, mad that they should need to bathe their own father. The ones facing their own incumbent mortality tend to be more optimistic. They often have a generous patience, now that time is running out they have far better things to do than hurry.
But one night a tall man came in while I was alone helping people. Those are the nights when everyone comes at once, wants to discuss the intimate details of their situations and try out at least ten different walkers. The phone rings frequently during those nights and half deaf people repeat your driving directions back to you letter by letter. The barn isn’t heated and the disinfectant spray chills the metal, which you can only work with bare fingers. It’s then that the smiles and camaraderie the visitors offer each other become necessary ingredients, one person whipping out photos of his grandkids or telling a silly joke helps the evening lose its urgency. But this one gentleman stood apart scowling, his patience worn out, speaking to no one. I imagined him as a cartoon with steam whistling out of his ears.
When finally we were alone he said simply and clearly, “I want a cane.” I was still bustling and grabbed several off the wall, asking him if he wanted an adjustable one, and whether silver, black, or gold would suit him best. He took them without responding, and as I bent to adjust one to his height, I happened to look up into his eyes. His face was in conflict, his eyes almost brimming over, his mouth working but not making any sound. He held the canes in tense hands, barely shaking. I stopped and stood up. I took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. And I waited. His eyes pleaded and yet glinted with a fierce intelligence. His mouth still refused to cooperate. Finally he spoke, each word coming the long distance from thought to desire to the muscles of his rigidmouth,“I... had... a... stroke... I... can’t ... say... any... more... what... I ... think... but... I... think.., damn ... it... And ... I... want ... to... say ... so ... many ... things.”
I suddenly saw how often he had been passed over by those of us who bustle, by those of us who take his silence to be incapability of thought, dullness of intellect. I waited to hear what he had to say, unable to look away from the eyes that spoke what his mouth was no longer able to; a man whose body had failed him, leaving him without a tool of communication, but by some twisted chance, able still to walk fairly well, able to drive a car, do his own shopping, and think, damn it, think. I gave him silence, not knowing what to say, yet having the ability to say whatever fool thing popped into my own head. I may have said, “I’m so sorry.” Or, “There’s no hurry now, I’m listening.” Or any of a number of platitudes that I offer each day in my attempt to lend comfort in an awkward situation. Some nights all I can say is, “Maybe it’ll stop raining soon. Stay dry.” Or, “Well, the moon sure is pretty tonight.” And hope that under the words they hear that, even if they didn’t like the one wheelchair I have to give or even if they’ve just lost their son, the whole world hasn’t turned against them.
I think he took my words, as foolishly formed as they were likely to be, as what they were, an offering. And his words, spat out with deliberation, collected in my brain. I remember them now on nights when I get flustered, busy, cold, and impatient. I remember them when the person I’m talking to can’t quite look at me, can’t sign his name in the book, or has to ask me to repeat myself yet again.
I found him a cane that worked and fit him and could help carry him about his silent days, as I have helped many other people find the right cane, or at least the best we have to offer. We have the tools that can help people shower with safety and a shred of dignity, the walker with a basket for putting their glasses and remote control in, a bed that can bend them upright when their own bodies refuse to do the task. We no longer have croup kettles or Bombay water coolers, at least not to my knowledge, though there might be some in one of the boxes around here. The years since 1909 have seen a lot of changes in medicine and the devices of healing but still, each day people come to our door looking for just the right items to ease their pain. And they might find comfort too, if like a stowaway inside a cane’s metal frame, comfort can hide inside the words we say or, even more certainly, inside the silence when there is nothing we can say.
Alison Coluccio is a former Lending Comforts Equipment Manager.
This article can be found in Contexts,
A Forum for Medical Humanities
Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2003