“Like the wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we are, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared that we came this way for a brief moment.”
I was feeling pretty good at getting back into the Hand in Hand office on Monday the 6th. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever take for granted this wonderful feeling of doing something hopefully useful, especially after years of basically only doing work if there were a few Euros to be had from it.
Jennifer and I briefly caught up with what each of us had been up to over the Christmas season and then settled down into the companionable silence we’ve gotten used to whilst we get on with our respective jobs.
I thought at the time that Jennifer’s mood was rather sombre, and I know that she was feeling more than a bit down after hearing over the weekend that a little girl who’s family were receiving support from Hand in Hand had died. As I walked home that day I considered how, even with as many years’ experience as she has, a person probably never quite gets used to that. Certainly, in my limited experience with the charity I have never seen illness or a death treated in a blasé manner.
This is not a grim place to work; far from it. If anything I’d consider that it’s one of the happiest places I’ve been in; and I hope that I speak for both of us when I say we share quite a few laughs. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of respect shown towards the nature of the job by anyone that I’ve met, and who give such massive assistance in whatever capacity they do.
A Lottery Letter
Unfortunately the day wasn’t destined to get any better for her. Just before five she forwarded an email to let me know that we had been turned down for the third year running in relation to any kind of input from the National Lottery Beneficiary Fund. Considering some of the activities that do get funding I think that at this stage we could be forgiven for a bit of paranoia. What exactly we would need to be doing in order to receive a little recognition from Health Minister Dr. James Reilly is a complete, unfathomable mystery to me.
Jennifer’s email was accompanied by some slightly colourful language that I’ll draw a discreet veil over in deference both to our younger readers and to her normally demure, shy, retiring and ladylike demeanour.
I think that the letter is worth reprinting in full, however:
Dear Miss Carpenter
I wish to refer to your application for National Lottery funding towards the cost of funding the expansion of the emotional and practical support of the services.
Applications for National Lottery grants far exceed resources and as the funds available for 2013 have been disbursed it is not possible, unfortunately, to assist in this particular case. However, if funding for this project is required in 2014, you may wish to apply for a grant from the National Lottery allocation.
There you go. That didn’t take long, did it? In fact it is the same as last year and the year before that and the year before that. All it needs is three sentences thrown at you and, to quote Jennifer’s letter to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in respect of this terse, cold little missive: “It has made the view ahead of us this year seem just that bit more daunting; and what was already an up-hill climb is now so much more of a struggle.”
She may not want to say it, but it will also make it harder than ever for Hand in Hand to actually continue to exist for the rest of 2014. For myself, I’m furious. As we have stressed time and again, this is the only charity for children with cancer in the West of Ireland.
I’m not an idiot; I know that there is nothing personal in that brief note, nothing malicious. It’s not meant to wound or hurt, nor has it been written with the express intention of making life more difficult; but by Heaven it has and it does!
The following day was quiet. Margaret had come in to sort through the accounts for the beginning of this New Year. I was attempting to pen an article despite some pain that it had seemed a genuinely good idea to inflict on myself the previous evening. I was vaguely aware that Jennifer was watching something on her computer but didn’t really take it in until I heard the startling words: “It wasn’t just a week in hospital; it was a week in Hell.”
In fact, what she was watching was the RTE interview with Donal Walsh, the articulate and inspiring 16-year-old Kerry lad who died last year following a four-year fight with cancer.
I found her in a very reflective mood afterwards and perhaps it was the combination of several things but she began reminiscing. I think that is worth quoting her at some length here.
“That part where Donal says, ‘I’ve been handed excuses on a silver plate’, about his diagnosis; that really gets to me.”
I’m not entirely sure what she means and say so.
“Well, it’s just that I wouldn’t be able to be that selfless. I’ve known a lot of other people like that and I just know that I would be so bloody angry that I’d be using all those excuses. I’d be piling them up on my plate and using them as an excuse to just bloody wallow in self-pity.”
I think that she’s being a bit hard on herself—none of us know how we would react—but I let it go. Meanwhile she’s still ranting away against herself:
“Here I am, after another lotto rejection and feeling sorry for myself; but I’ll tell you, that sentence has me riddled with guilt. Sure, I’m facing a very tough year but at least I have a year! Well, God willing, anyway. So shut up snivelling, Carpenter, and get on with it!”
I don’t know how dangerous this idea of talking to herself is but at least it seems to be helping.
“It hurt so much it is impossible to describe. The initial pain of grief is raw and physical. After some time it loses its edge a tiny bit. It comes in waves and eventually the lapse between the waves grows.
“And finally—finally—I see all the wonderful things I have left of them both. Everything I am, I am because of my mum. From her I learned everything I need to know in order to be happy and content.
“Shelly was very much the wise big sister, so if ever I’m in doubt I imagine what her advice would be. They no longer feel lost to me but are very much a part of everyday living; and thinking of them today gives me a warm and snugly feeling of being loved.
“I have all of this because they both had a life; not long enough for my liking, but a life. Enough time for me to have built up enough memories of our shared time to last me the rest of my days.
“That is why I cannot comprehend the pain of losing a child. What you are left with is not just all that you had but all that you should have had; not all that they were but all that they should have become. Too much is stolen, more than I think I could bare.
“I’m sorry that this is depressing and I know that I’ve made this point to you before; but we hear so much of surviving cancer. Those who lose their children should never be overlooked as a consequence. I sometimes feel that with such an emphasis on ‘surviving’ that the parents of those who haven’t are in fear—unnecessarily, but in fear just the same—that their precious child will somehow be forgotten. Which is just not the case.”
I want to express my very great thanks to Jennifer for sharing that with me; and by extension with you. Apart from the fact that the sentiments are so beautiful, I think that a lot of people will relate to them.
After that it was my turn to pass on to her a story that she had missed. It has been doing the rounds on Facebook and in case you have also missed it, I believe that it is worth reprinting in full. So here it is, just as I received it. I think that this is marvellous.
A New York Taxi Driver’s Story
A Sweet Lesson in Patience
I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be the last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in ‘park’ and walked up to the door and knocked.
‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.
After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.
By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.
There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.
She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.
She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.’
‘Oh, you’re such a good boy’, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked: ‘Could you drive through downtown?’
‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly.
‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.’
I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued in a soft voice. ‘The doctor says I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.
‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked.
For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.
We drove through the neighbourhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.
Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
Great Moments Often Catch Us Unaware
As the first hint of the sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now.’ We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.
‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse.
‘Nothing,’ I said.
‘You have to make a living,’ she answered. ‘There are other passengers,’ I responded.
Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.
‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thanks you.’
I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?
On a quick review, I don’t think that I have ever done anything more important in my life. We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments; but great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.