I recently met a woman, frail and insignificant seeming, living in a trailer, who had traveled the world, over 35 countries, and served in World War II as a nurse. I was told she cataloged much of her travelling in photography and had video footage of Vietnam in areas that no longer exist, and she met the Dali Lama.
Stories I never would have guessed about her. Then I discover, as I am talking to what I think is her granddaughter, that in fact, she has no offspring, and was widowed a few years back. Her neighbors, who have lived near her over twenty years, have taken her home after the last of many falls- finally landing her in the hospital. They knew she could no longer practice the fierce independence that had served her so well for the ninety plus years of her life. They are providing the care she needs so she doesn’t have to “die in a nursing home”.
“She would hate that!” they tell me.
I remarked, in complete amazement, how surprised I was, that they would take in a neighbor and provide the kind of day in and day out care required of someone dying. I was told, “That’s what we do, take care of each other. What else are neighbors for?” (I don’t mention some of my past neighbors, who wanted to sue over boundary lines, or break multiple branches off of shrubs they felt encroached in the street as they rode their bikes by.)
“Wow,” I said, “I don’t think you guys are ordinary neighbors, I’d call that living the golden rule, for sure. We should all have neighbors like you!”
They laughed and assured me it wasn’t that unusual, nor was it the first time someone in the neighborhood had died with the support of the rest of the neighbors. For a moment I was pretty sure I had landed in utopia.
I thought of all the countless times I have been surprised by patients and their caregivers; what looked simple and straight forward, or the person who appeared to never get very “far” in life, or the caregivers who on first look seem inept, or unlikely- all the appearances that in fact were so different from the facts.
I remind myself to not assume, or take anything for granted. Every day holds surprises for us, if we just remain curious and look for them.