Hard to know how to make sense of someone else's pain
Published 23/01/2016 | 00:00
Betty has been in hospital since December 9 when she fell and broke her pelvis.
I first got to know Betty in the early 1990s. She was living in Dublin's Dominick Street. Her sister Violet came to Mass in the local Dominican church and it was there that I got to know her. Before that Betty had been involved in a road accident, which left her semi-invalided. She had difficulty walking, but with the aid of a wheel chair and a specially adapted car she was quite mobile.
Before Christmas I discovered that she had had a fall and was in hospital. Recovery for a woman in her 80s is going to be slow. Even slower for someone who is already frail. I have been to visit her twice in hospital and on both occasions her sister Violet has been at her bedside. She spends every afternoon with her.
On Monday when I visited her she was asleep. Her feet were visible at the bottom of the bed and her sister was massaging them. 'Michael, Betty has terrible pain in her feet,' Violet told me as she continued to rub them. A few minutes later Betty woke up, gave me a smile and fell back to sleep. But I imagine a sleep of sorts as it was clear to see from her face that she was in pain. As a result of the road accident Betty damaged one of her feet and probably the pain she is now experiencing is made worse because of that accident many years ago.
Violet, while talking to me, was gently massaging her sister's feet. We were laughing with one another. None of us now lives on Dominick Street so we were talking about what life was like over 25 years ago on the street. Naturally there was plenty to laugh about, some things to sadden us but at the end of most paragraphs we were laughing. Violet had been part of a team that organised a family Mass in the parish. She with a number of other people put great work into the Sunday Mass.
On Monday I stayed less than 20 minutes at Betty's bedside, before heading off, and away from the world of pain that Betty lives. Travelling home on the bus it began to dawn on me. The suffering that Betty has been experiencing year-in-year-out and her sister has always been there to offer all the human comfort she can. She never goes away, she is always there in good times and bad to care for her sister.
Seldom if ever does she talk about theology or church rules. Nor have I ever heard her use words such as morality, justice, all the words that the commentariat use, all the words that ministers of religion trip from their tongue with such ease. And yet, I doubt if I have ever met someone who is such a kind and good person. None of the pious stuff, no sanctimonious words, no telling me what to do or how to vote. None of that, instead there she is massaging the feet of her sister.
It's difficult, even trite, ever to try to say anything about pain and suffering. It's all bad stuff and so easy for onlookers to use all the wrong words and give all the worst 'advice'. Watching Violet massaging her sister's feet is the closest I have ever seen to anyone make 'sense' of pain. Being there, being kind. Laughing too.
The line from John Milton's poem on his blindness comes to mind: 'They also serve who only stand and wait.'