Tuesday, March 20, 2018

THE GIFT OF HELEN


 

This is a true story.  It happened in Connecticut many years ago.  Sometimes I get caught up in the annoyances of aging and let the good stuff, the valuable lessons slip to the back burner.  More often my spirit is revived by recalling the beauty and necessity of simplicity.   I live in the Pacific Northwest now, but New England will always be home and Helen will always be remembered.
 
*****


 She slipped in the door quietly.  She reached her right hand down to the burlap bag that was hanging from a piece of clothesline pulled taut across her torso.  Her long, gray braid fell across her shoulders.  She rolled her fingers around the silky threads dangling over the top of the sack and, one by one, gently pulled out ten ears of corn, placing each plump, green ear along the length of the mahogany reception desk.  The old woman, wrapped in a shabby, brown coat and wearing muddy work boots, was in our medical office for her yearly physical.  On subsequent visits zucchini, potatoes, and green beans appeared.  And every fall juicy apples from her orchard rolled out of the sack.  She was a lifelong New England farmer and remained a patient of ours for a number of years.  She brought fruits and vegetables for everyone on staff whenever she had an appointment.  But the food bounty shared paled in comparison to the extraordinary treasure of her presence.  Her name was Helen and everyone connected to our Connecticut family medicine practice who came into contact with the woman longed to be like her.

 
Odd things happened when Helen walked into the office for her appointments.   The chatter in the waiting room stopped. The staff went from high speed scurrying to slow, easy steps.  A palpable calm came over the room. Helen always smiled, not a big toothy grin, just a pleasant smile that seemed more for her than for show.   Clear, emerald eyes danced to the soft tones of her voice.  An unassuming “good morning” brought everyone on staff (including the doctor) to her side.   We fought over whose turn it was to take her vitals and who would assist in her exam.   And not one of us got antsy or annoyed when the waiting room grew packed while the doctor deliberately took forever with her visit.  When she left, everyone in the office was a little calmer for the rest of the day.  The moments of unexplained composure continued with each of Helen’s appointments, until her health declined and she was admitted to an extended care facility near family.   Several weeks later, I was in New Haven having breakfast with a girlfriend who worked as a nurse.  She had just gotten off a double shift.  “You must be exhausted,” I commented.  “Not really,” she said.  “I actually requested to stay on through the night.”   She explained that a very ill patient in the skilled nursing home had taken a turn for the worse.  The woman was so loved that the doctors, nurses, and aides all clamored to be with her in the final hours.  She had slipped away during the night with the entire staff at her side.  “We wanted one last moment in Helen’s presence before the mystery was lost forever,” said my friend.  “Everyone wanted to be with her, be like her, and yet no one knew exactly what that meant.   What we did know was that her existence was special.  Helen was a soul beyond the norm.”  Listening to my friend, I was unable to speak.   But I understood the magic.

 
While Helen wasn’t interested in computers or other modern-day gadgets, spiritually it seemed to those of us who met her that she was light-years ahead of the world.  Some said Helen was a gift.  She owned a serenity that had nothing to do with anyone else, yet everyone gleaned a calming moment from her, soaking up her quiet aura as if it was liquid gold.   Being in the company of Helen was akin to entering into a state of relaxation.  She replaced the bombardment of life with a tranquility that took a person deep into themselves to the experience of a breath softening, a heart slowing, a mind escaping the mundane to rest for a time on the mystique of a woman who stopped the nonsense.  She exhibited the very real possibility of being able to be at peace, from the inside out, with one’s place in the universe.  Her presence connected one living soul to another at a level unrecognized in a driven society.   Many believed she was not of this world.  How often it was said that Helen was an angel.  How often I wondered if a person had to be born that way. Or did I simply not know where to begin?  Today I do my best to work on the Helen lessons.  Her teaching by showing not telling reminds me that I can experience my own path of harmony in a turbulent world.  At any given moment I can stop, inhale the magnificence of life and my connection to it all and exhale a silent thank you.  I have a remarkable teacher on my shoulder.  Doubt I’ll ever get to her level of personal peace, but what a privilege it is to try.  What a gift to have known her.  May we all replace, at least for a time, the bombardment of life.  Let us reach deep for that inner serenity waiting to be experienced and shared.   With love and gratitude for my encounters with an extraordinary woman, I pass the gift of Helen along to you, dear readers.    

Best wishes from THIS OLD GIRL.

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