The Pulse of Life

Yesterday afternoon I was in a bit of a rush to get out of the hospital. We had been let out of our class early so I used that bonus time to catch up on some record-keeping and to check in on a patient. It's a nice feeling, when life suddenly dishes up a few empty hours you didn't think you were going to have. After my patient visit I stopped in the cafeteria (they call it a café, but you are so not fooling me, Fletcher Allen Food Services), grabbed some juice and a fig bar and set out for the office, my coat and car key. I was wearing a colorful skirt yesterday, and when I passed a girl in the hall she took looked at me and said, "That's a cool skirt." I was so caught off-guard by that act of kindness by a stranger that I almost kept going, through the door and into the stairwell, not acknowledging the next, "That's a lovely skirt," uttered by an elderly woman, sitting alone on a bench near the information desk. Some magical force stopped me dead in my tracks, however, and I circled back around and went and sat beside her.

"Why thank you so much!" I said through my beaming smile, "How are you today?"

She seemed a little surprised. "Do I know you?" she asked.

"My name is Melissa O'Brien. I'm a chaplain here in the hospital," I said, extending my hand.

And from there this lovely woman, swaddled in a down coat and wearing a bright blue knit cap, and I settled comfortably into a conversation that took us through local politics to her work as a painter, to the overlapping places in our lives (I grew up in Saratoga Springs; she spent time at Yaddo, an artist colony there and one of my favorite places on the planet). She told me about the period in her life when she spent a lot of time in the hospital because of cancer and how that changed her thinking about everything. I sat and listened to every word she said, about how she takes the bus to get around and sometimes stops at the hospital to sit in the sun of the great entranceway and read. We talked about the worrisome nature of our world, in which people are communicating more through phones and less in person. The hospital hummed all around us, but we stayed completely absorbed, there inside our little bubble of togetherness, each fascinated by the other. Her name was Barbara and she was so bright with kindness and so very alive that she seemed lit up from within. My guess was that she is in her mid-70s but it was hard to tell because she was, like most vibrant humans, ageless. She told me about her activism, about how she fought to keep the F-35's from flying over Burlington and the Vermont Gas pipeline from running through Addison County. We talked about my work, too. "You are right on the pulse of life, " she said. "When you work with people who are sick and dying, you know more about how to live your life."


Thank you for taking a nanosecond to share a kind thought about my funny skirt, dearest Barbara. In the short time when our lives intersected, in the middle of a bustling hospital, you reminded me of why we are here. We did not Tweet, Instagram, text or take a selfie of our moment. We were there, present, two humans doing what humans do best, together.