“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
She was a nurse employed at a residential care home in Western Oklahoma. It was a muggy summer night and many of the residents seemed more restless than usual. One of the patients, an elderly woman with a sour disposition most wouldn’t even venture near, was especially ill. Her doctor had quietly told the nurses she probably had only hours to live.
As the woman yelled loudly once again for someone to help her, the nurse hurried to the end of the hallway to her room. When she arrived at the room, like so many times before, the woman did not appear to need assistance, but seemed only to want someone with her. She complained she could not sleep and demanded the nurse do something about it.
The old woman had been a resident at the center for a number of years. She was known as a bitter person who complained long and loudly on a daily basis. No family ever visited her. Most of the nurses disliked treating her at all and even the most optimistic of the residents had given up trying to befriend her. Indeed, most only wanted to put distance between themselves and her constant complaining.
A little while later, the nurse returned to the woman’s room with a sleeping tablet prescribed by the doctor. She spoke in quiet tones to calm the woman who seemed very tired.
Suddenly she looked up, terror filling the old eyes as she said “I know I don’t have much longer to live and I’m afraid.” Big tears began to roll down her wrinkled cheeks as her eyes pleaded with the woman for understanding.
The nurse’s heart filled with compassion and she went to the woman then and put her arms around her. It was near midnight and her frail body shuddered as she cried. “I’m afraid to die,” she sobbed.
After many minutes, the nurse was finally able to quiet the old woman. She looked up at her from her bed, wrinkled cheeks wet with tears and asked “Would you stay with me? I’m so afraid.” The nurse remembered a time many years before when she was a small child. Her mother had died when she was very young and she remembered the terror of waking from nightmares with no one there to comfort her. She remembered nights spent awake fighting sleep when the nightmares would come and fearing the dark. A lump rose in her throat and tears filled her eyes as she nodded silently, then folded back the cover and climbed into bed with the old woman. She gently held her frail little body and stroked her hair until at last the sleeping pill took effect and she fell asleep.
In the early hours of morning, the nurse went back to check on the woman. Quietly opening the door and walking over to her bed, she saw that the woman looked peaceful, but then she saw she had stopped breathing. Tears again filled her eyes as she realized her kindness had been the last kindness shown to the old woman before she passed away that night.
There is a Chinese proverb that says “A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.” How true this is, for we never touch the life of another without also touching our own.
How many of us would have felt any compassion when faced with someone usually so unpleasant to deal with? How many of us would have felt sympathy for her but in the end done nothing to help? Would we have had the courage to risk our jobs to help a dying stranger?
True compassion does not stand and offer only words in time of need. Real compassion does not only look, it sees. The eyes of compassion see the pain and suffering of the other person and have the courage not only to look, but to look for ways to help, however small those ways might be.
“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”- Og Mandino
Excerpted from Sidewalk Flowers, Vol. 1
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