A Lesson in Listening

(This is the middle part of a much longer story in memory of my friend Margy Anderson)

I wondered if 7:30 AM was too early to call even though I’d been up for hours. I knew Margy was not sleeping well these days, propped with pillows around her halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from cancer.

When she was surgically fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her forehead the “Frankenstein bolts”. I threatened to give her a white lace veil to drape around the metal halo surrounding her head, so she might be more recognizable as Frankenstein’s bride. She replied that Frankenstein’s bride had frightful hair rather than being completely bald, so a veil was not going to hide the ugly truth.

After a long 24 hours in the emergency room seeing patients, I felt the need to talk to her.  I wanted to tell her how deeply I appreciated the skills she had taught me, the spirit of service she, a former nun now married with two college age children, had instilled in me. Each patient I had seen in the Emergency Room over the previous 24 hours benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught us in med school. We were reminded each patient had an important story to tell no matter how rushed we were. She insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body. She told us: : “Just let your patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by caring enough to sit and listen…”

With a recent diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Margy herself was broken and in need of the glue of friendship, and so I had become her friend even though we were thirty years apart in age. Despite her illness, and more over as a result of it, she continued to teach and serve her students, often from her bed at home.

Her phone rang only once. There was a long pause, a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?”
“Yes? Emily? ”
“Margy? What is it? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
Her voice shattered like glass, strangling on words that choked her.
“It’s Gordy, Emily. He’s dead…”
“What? What are you saying?”
“A policeman just left. He told us our boy is dead. Hit on the freeway sleepwalking out of the back of the camper he was riding in on the way to Mexico for a spring break mission trip.”

I sat in stunned silence, holding the receiver like a lifeline to her, completely undone by her sobs. Then I remembered what she herself had taught me only a few months before.

“I’m coming right now. I’ll stay with you as long as you need me.”

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