Sunday, January 2, 2011

More Untold Stories

What helps us get to know each other better? How does that happen?

I had an experience on the afternoon of December 31, 2010 that taught me that some of the most worthwhile time spent on this earth can be very brief.

If you've followed this blog over the years you know that I love learning about, or at least catching a glimpse of, the untold stories people hold. I also cherish the chance to get to know people I might not ordinarily spend much time with in the course of day-to-day work or life. I feel especially grateful to those who work the hardest and get compensated the least. I often feel bad at how tough their jobs are, and how little I help, and how spoiled I am. (If there's life after death and I can be assigned to watch over a particular group of people, I want to be the protector of those who make a tough living - though of course the time to try to share each other's burdens is NOW.)

Sometimes, especially when I'm in the Philippines, I let myself get hustled a little. I just bought a piece of carved driftwood from a beach peddler because he was asking for so little, and even though his sob story about having to go back to Rural Wherever might have been a bit of a story, there's always a grain of truth in there, and if I had to make a living combing the beach selling folk art in sweltering heat to privileged resort visitors, wouldn't I say what I could to make a sale?

Anyway, here I am at a luxurious resort with my family, getting R&R, paying $10 an hour for massage therapy, while diligent, cheerful resort workers - the ratio of resort staff to guests is 2:1 - work and work and work to make our stay comfortable and pleasant. I don't know why the lovely woman in this photo and I were able to connect as more than service provider and client for a few moments, but it was truly a gift. She was giving me a luxurious massage, and thanks to her, a giant, painful knot in my left shoulder - a recurring problem - was experiencing considerable relief. But we got to talking, and in the course of our conversation I learned something about her life and personal story, and I think it was probably one of the most powerful and memorable moments of 2010.

She is only five years my senior but she looks about ten years older. She lost her husband two years ago to a devastating gun accident. She had at that point just had her eighth child; her eldest is 20. She gave birth to all her children at home with only a female relative to help - hospitals are too expensive. One of her children, who had been in breech position, was stillborn. She has been a massage therapist at this resort for 18 years and works at least nine- or ten-hour days. Sometimes she takes call and has to leave home at night - the resort can call for a massage as late as 10 p.m. A neighbor helps watch over her kids while she's at work. Sometimes her kids visit her, as her fourth child did, the delightful eleven-year-old standing with her in the photo above.

I sympathized with having to be on-call and how hard it was to leave children at home. I told her daughter what a difference her mother's healing work made and how good her mom was at it. They had a good laugh at my Tagalog, which from long periods of disuse comes out in broken bits sometimes.

Life's interesting - you can go halfway around the world and have the most beautiful, luxurious surroundings and services at your fingertips, but in the end it's still the human connections that are the most satisfying and memorable gifts of all.


Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

To see the connections between ourselves and others, even when circumstances and geography make it appear we have nothing in common, is truly a gift and a joy. Thank you for this post.

Andy Coffey said...

What a wonderful blog. My father just retired from your field, and I have been looking for a blog to help me understand his career better... as well as some of what happened in my childhood (the pressures he was under in balancing family and work, ect.)
Lastly, I am simply fascinated about what is involved in medicine... since it was, after all, like you, a huge part of my fathers life. I look forward to learning more about your wonderful blog. Thanks. (I'm from Bloomington, Indiana, by the way.)

T. said...

Andy - how kind of you to drop by! Thanks for your comment. Many of my older posts do deal with the pressures of family and work in this field - I hope you enjoy them!