Being present is a healing gift you can offer to anyone—loved ones and strangers alike.
We met Daniel at the clinic. Like Daniel and a dozen other regulars, my wife was in the infusion room because she had cancer. At first, we purposely avoided others because we wanted no part of their lives or their troubles, we were struggling being present with our own. Unless somebody there could hand us a quick cure for stage IV breast cancer, we weren’t interested.
In fact, I knew we had plenty in common with the people there. We just didn’t know how we could help anyone else when we were so lost ourselves. Huddled together at the clinic, we all felt that our lives had been ambushed by illness, all of us victims. Some suffered more as shell-shocked patients, and some of us were the ones who loved them. But our questions were the same: How do we get through all this? How do we live now? How do we go on? When we encountered Daniel, we began to get answers.
When nineteen-year-old Daniel arrived, he made a lot of noise. His cancer left him with a hesitant gait and a shuffle. We stopped chatting or put down our magazines when we saw him come in. Nurse Liz greeted Daniel and, as usual, began to assemble her gear. She carefully hooked-up bulging IV bags, colorless, or in shades of pink or amber. Unwrapping his scarf, Daniel pivoted around to the rest of us who were seated in anticipation. We knew what was coming. Before Liz could begin her ritual of flushing his IV port, Daniel stood “center-stage” and faced us, his audience. We were about to be treated with a “Daniel moment.”
Daniel always started each of his infusion sessions with a joke. Delivered in detail with the deftness of a professional comic, the joke was almost always one of the corniest jokes around, usually a joke we had heard before: Horse walks into a bar. ‘Why the long face?’ asks the bartender, etc.
The quality of Daniel's comedy repertoire did not matter. We laughed like children. The reliable glow of the shaky and stiff-necked young man with the rare spinal cancer warmed the room. Daniel filled the space with himself, and that was enough. Our spirits were lifted. Something about Daniel altered the atmosphere of the otherwise sober gathering. It was not about the joke. It was about Daniel, being present. Daniel could not answer our haunting questions or predict the future, but he could make us smile. Daniel’s youthful and openhearted enthusiasm for life and laughter, despite his circumstances, vitalized the rest of us. It was hard to be “down” in Daniel’s presence because he was so “up.” The busy clinic was full of all kinds of medicine, but Daniel’s presence was the best of all.
[Also read: “The Medicine of Laughter.”]
It’s been over ten years since my wife died, and of course, I still miss her. More than any of the particular and amazing things we did together—and there were many—it is her indescribable presence I crave the most. It was the quality of her being and her being with me that made every moment we shared so wonderful. In the cancer years, we somehow learned to embrace our days with a sense of newness and “now-ness”—as if everything we did together was both the first and the last time. In her final months, my wife and I repeatedly sat together with foam mustaches because she allowed herself one cappuccino per day. She always remarked how delicious it was, as she sipped the coffee so very slowly until it was cold.
My wife and I discovered that the greatest gift to each other was just being present around each other. This was always true, but—as we experienced with Daniel and so many others—it was especially true in the time of illness. Presence, by definition, is the now and one’s place in it. Somehow, over time, my late wife and I learned to let the present wash over us; we let it drench us thoroughly so we could absorb its nourishment.
A person's presence is everything. Being present with a person means that you enter a shared moment, never to be repeated. Words are not always necessary when you are present with someone. When the person you are with has cancer or any serious illness, let that person shape the moment. You don’t need to have a speech ready, or an agenda, or even a box of chocolates. Just be there. He or she might choose to hold your hand in silence or fill the time with questions, complaints, requests, laughter, tears, or just idle chatter. Let it be. That once-in-a-lifetime moment will take care of itself.
Just by showing up, you can love someone who needs it. Presence can be a healing force, so let it fill the room. It is the enduring gift of yourself.
Keep reading: “The Spirituality of Laughter.”