“As a young doctor, I thought that serving life was a thing of drama and action and split second judgment calls. A question of going sleepless and riding in ambulances and outwitting the angel of death. A role open only to those who have prepared themselves for years. Service was larger than ordinary life, and those who serve were larger than life also. But I know now that this is only part of the nature of service. That service is small and quiet and everywhere. That far more often we serve by who we are and not what we know. And everyone serves whether they know it or not. We bless life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. All it may take to restore someone’s trust in life may be returning a lost earing or a dropped glove.” – Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
The above quote was used to preface one of my mother’s recent staff meetings. She was so moved by it, and so eager to share it with me, that she couldn’t even wait until she got home to show me it—instead she texted it to me, every word you see above. I started to respect this even further as I began to transcribe the quote here. Even on my laptop, copying it took some time.
I can see why she was so excited by it: it is a fantastic articulation of her philosophy, a philosophy that she has mastered, and a philosophy that I am still working on. Many of my friends and family might call me a helpless idealist, although they are kind enough not to. But if they did, I’d agree. I find my aspirations to be grandiose—I aspire to be a world changer. Admittedly, I am much like the young doctor. But as I get further along in life, although I haven’t lost my idealism completely, I am faced with the sobering fact that changing things isn’t easy. That is not to say, however, that I feel that there isn’t a place for people like this young doctor, but sometimes when looking to save the world, one forgets about the people around him/her. I’m still on the search for a balance.
And this is where the story begins. My mother, who works with the intellectually disabled, recently invited me to a volunteer opportunity, a trip to a minor league baseball game. Because I had been busy, and because I’d apparently forgotten what I’d learned in the above quote, it took some deliberation but I eventually accepted the invitation. And am I glad I did. Because I could fill pages and pages with my experience, I will limit my anecdote to just the most poignant moments. Let’s start with Jack, whose name has been changed to protect his identity:
We show up at the baseball stadium and meet my mother’s residents in the parking lot. They are getting out of a van, assisted by two ostensibly stressed, but benevolent staff members. The first resident I see—Jack. He makes his way over to me and without any introduction, shakes my hand and smiles.
“This is my son Anthony” my mother says.
Jack squeezes my hand just a little bit harder, smiles just a little bit wider, and responds, “The boss’s boy.”
“Yes, yes, the boss’s boy,” my mother says.
So we make our way through the dirt parking lot and to the stadium. We get everyone’s food and we sit down.
Jack looks over to me: “No food?” he asks, raising his burger up in the air.
“No, I’m not hungry. Thank you, though,” I respond.
“Not hungry?” he asks in confirmation.
“No, not hungry.”
This quells him for a moment.
A few moments later: “Fries are good,” he says.
I get the hint but assure him again that I’m not hungry.
The game gets going and sometime in the third inning my mom gets up to go to the bathroom. I can see the distress in Jack’s face.
“Boss?” he asks.
“She went to use the bathroom,” I assure him.
He nods. But just a few minutes later, again, “Boss?”
“She takes a long time,” I responded.
He nods back. Eventually, she returns and he’s back to watching the game.
We left in the seventh; everyone was tired. On the drive home with my mother, I asked some questions about Jack. He had struck a chord in me. She started with a couple lighthearted stories: she said that he, nearly every time he saw her, would repeat, “One boy, two dogs, one cat.” After our two dogs died and we got another cat, he would say, “One boy, two dead dogs, two cats.” This got a giggle out of me. Next she told me a sadder story. Jack’s mom had died just a month before. Yet he was so concerned about me, the outsider, feeling comfortable, and he was so concerned about my mother, the boss, and her safety. Needless to say, I was moved. Jack lived by Remen’s quote. But Jack also showed me how closely my mom lived by the quote: I could tell by Jack’s face when he saw her and I could tell by the way she took special care to listen to him, even when it was difficult. This is evidence that we don’t need to save the world; we just need to make small, local differences—Jack has something to teach us all.
“Baseball diamond marines”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baseball_diamond_marines.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Baseball_diamond_marines.jpg