There is vast kindness in this world and right now I am resting in it, astonished by it, a man who in the space of 48 hours went through an ablation procedure to calm wild heart arrhythmia and then a heart valve replacement and a valve repair. I climbed aboard the gurney for the first procedure, an adult male of 80, and was borne away from the second in an infantile state, helpless, somewhat hallucinatory, a disastrous life change for a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and through it all I was aware of the young women and men in blue scrubs who were at my side, making friendly small talk while checking tubes and adjusting pillows. They asked me to squeeze their hands, wiggle my fingers, look into a bright light, push up against their hand pulling my foot down, smile, raise my eyebrows, follow their finger with my eyes, and when I did they said, “Awesome,” “Fantastic,” “Excellent.” I said, “A person doesn’t have to do much to win praise around here” and they laughed. It was the only useful thing I could do, make them laugh, so I became a lie-down comedian, interpreting literally what they said: “Oh, we are going to have a bowel movement now? Fine, you go first and I’ll watch and see how it’s done.”
I was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, but of course it could’ve been one of dozens of hospitals. These angelic beings in blue are a widespread tribe and you may not be aware of their existence — I was not — unless you’re in extreme need. A bedridden old man in the thrall of dark visions is in deep need. “What can we do for you?” they asked; I said, “Make me a better person.”
I tried to pee into a small plastic urinal and peed inaccurately down my left leg and a woman cleaned it up. I apologized. “Happens all the time,” she said. After a series of bowel softeners I felt movement in my innards and pressed the Call button and pushed my walker toward the toilet and got tangled up in a couple IV tubes and left a path of shit across the floor and said I was sorry to the woman in blue and she laughed and said, “That’s what we’re here for.”
What astonishes me is the motivation of men. Back in my day, women went into nursing because they were good people, men wanted to be big shots and VIPs, maybe jerks. I wanted to be a bestselling author, be admired, get extravagant reviews in the Times. I’m over it now. I write because I want to tell you about these people who meant so much to me. I took a shower with the help of two women, a naked old man sitting on a bench under warm water, being scrubbed down, the tape removed from the incision, the scar gently patted down with liquid soap — there was nothing erotic about it, not a single dirty joke flashed to mind, only astonishment at these two. Nursing is the occupation that comes closest to what Jesus told His followers to do — heal the sick, whatsoever you do for the poor you do for me. Bathing the poor, feeding them, adjusting their pillows, making small talk to reassure them of their humanity.
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The men and women nurses I met were so much of a type, solid, unfailingly polite, prepared to lift or scootch or straighten a tangle of wires, ready to explain medical science to me who knows nothing. You press the button, they’re there.
America is a Protestant country and we skipped the foot-washing, love-thy-neighbor aspects of the faith, preferring preaching, a performance art that lets you despise your neighbor and thereby raise yourself up. Our politics today is tortured by its Protestantism. The Sisters of St. Mary who founded this hospital may have inherited some dreadful theology but they took a better path, they lay hands on the suffering, they soothed the fevered brow, they lifted the fallen.
I preached this to a young man as he cleaned out my IV and he was amused to be considered saintly. He grew up on a farm and got a job in a nursing home. “I knew I could be good at this. I liked playing music but I wasn’t good enough. And I wanted to bring up my family in my hometown.” Still I feel there’s a new style of manhood forming, part of the vast kindness. I owe my life to these people and I am profoundly grateful. I’m jumping up and down and pissing in my pants, doing the urinal dance.