When I was in the fifth grade at St. Mary's Catholic School in Hagerstown, Maryland, my teacher told my mother and father that I had "the patience of Job." Since it was a Catholic school, I knew who Job was, but didn't think that my actions (I'd spent most of class helping another student work through our reading assignment) merited the comparison. After that, though, I became keenly aware of patience in my world -- how much patience my grandmother had with my little sister, or how little patience the man in front of us in line at the bank had when the teller was too slow. I became obsessed with patience, and, having been told that I had some, it became something to focus on and be the best at, and I tried harder every day to be the most patient kid on the block -- literally.
Fast forward about 24 years, and I am a grown woman, married and living and working in Northern Virginia, growing more and more frustrated with the daily hassles that come with life in a busy, crowded metropolitan area and that seem to be growing exponentially. I know that lately I seem to be a different person, and not always one that I like. I am irritable more often than not. I am frustrated by the littlest things. I get annoyed when plans take a detour or something doesn't go just right. And I get absolutely furious when I get stuck in traffic or cut off by a crazy driver. Not even the calming influence of my veganism seems to help.
I'd been so tightly wound up by my own stressful life that I never even thought about patience anymore -- or my recent lack of it. Until one day this past December, that is, when I picked up my mother for a day of Christmas shopping. As I drove us down the DC beltway on a relatively quiet Saturday morning, I became increasingly agitated and short-tempered. My mother, the kindest person I know, glanced at me and said quietly, "Sweetie, I'm worried about you. Where's your patience?"
I reeled. I knew she was right, and it made me angry. Even more telling, to my horror, was the exasperation I felt toward Mom for even saying it! I was sad to think that I had let my patience wither, and I realized that I would need to consciously exercise it to get it back in my life. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I missed the sense of peace and strength that had once come with having patience so ingrained in my life that I never even had to consciously call upon it. I resolved to again be mindful of it, and to somehow invite patience back to my spirit.
What a harbinger that day and that realization turned out to be. On February 9 of this year, my 55-year old father, who has lung and brain cancer, had a grand mal seizure that caused significant brain damage and rendered his quality of life nearly absent. After ten days in the hospital, we learned that the local nursing homes and rehabilitation centers had denied him admission, as he is terminally ill and offers "no hope of improvement or recovery." Much to my dad's pleasure, we brought him home.
Hospice has been a godsend, and we are lucky enough to have the 24-hour assistance of family and friends, including having one of my father's Maryland State Police coworkers here by his bedside every single night so that my stepmother and sister and I can rest. We are truly blessed to have more love and support than we could ever imagine.
But even so, as the days pass and my father's condition worsens, his temperament changes and he becomes more and more difficult to handle emotionally. Jim, Dad's hospice nurse, counseled us that he would become increasingly agitated and demanding, and he was right. Our patience has been tested more and more every day. Even when I know it's not me he's yelling at, it's hard. As I watch my stepmom struggle with the tired frustration that comes with being a primary caretaker, and even as I tell her it is perfectly normal for us to feel angry when we really feel helpless, I am nonetheless truly mortified to realize that my own patience with Dad - who wants nothing more than to sit up in bed for a moment to relieve his aching back - seems to slowly drain from me during his more exacting days.
I know that I am a compassionate person. My mother says I always have been. When I was little, I just knew that the elderly man eating by himself at a restaurant was unbearably lonely, and I'd beg Mom to invite him to join us at our table. Even before I was vegan, I cried at the thought of any animal suffering in any way. And recently, I couldn't bear to hear other patients - complete strangers - on Dad's hospital floor cry out in pain. So I wonder how it could even be possible that I have lost even an ounce of mercy for my own father, my strong, vital, and proud father who I love so much and who now needs help eating his oatmeal and holding up his head.
I hold my breath, I bite my tongue, I count to ten over and over. I do whatever I have to do to remember that all he wants is to be the man he was before brain tumors incapacitated him. Usually, all it takes is stepping back for just a moment and watching my father as he waits, very patiently, to die.
e x t e s s a y -
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