During a recent volunteer shift at Amahoro House (AH), I met John, a quiet middle-aged man who mostly keeps to himself. On this particular afternoon, after tending to the guests needs upon arrival to AH, I decided to mow the grass and was making my way into the garden courtyard with the mower when I found John, sitting in the garden after showering. He appeared to be journaling and enjoying the quiet. I didn’t want to disturb his privacy and the moment he appeared to be enjoying amidst the flowers and the resident hummingbird!
As soon as he saw me though, John stood up and began making his way back into the house saying, “I’ll get out of your way.” I told him that wasn’t necessary, he could stay and continue his writing – I told him I could mow the grass later and didn’t want to disturb him.
To me it was a simple courtesy to offer him the courtyard, but for John I think it meant a great deal. Actually he seemed shocked that I would put his interest ahead of my own. He thanked me, and to his credit, took me up on the offer, and returned to his writing. In that moment I was reminded how often people living on the street are admonished (or worse) to ‘move along,’ and how they are accustomed to that subtle structural violence and marginalizing dehumanization, and how traumatic and degrading that is for a human being.
I set aside the mower, and a few minutes later, I decided to join John in the courtyard, just to sit quietly myself and take in the garden. After a little while of us both sitting there in silence he said to me, “You know, in my life, I haven’t done much good.” And he stopped, just looking off. I didn’t try to rescue him; I just held the space. I’ve learned enough to know in hospice work, that when a dying person speaks to us from the heart, we need to first take a breath, and honor that trust and willingness to let us in to that place of suffering or fear or sadness. We don’t try to buck people up as a way of changing the subject. When we do that we shut down the conversation.
After a few moments, John’s mood seemed to lighten and he just started telling me how proud he was of his kids, how one is becoming a fireman, and how he’s trying to make amends for choices he made years ago that hurt them, and how he feels there is some possibility for reconciliation, and how he hopes for that.
And that was it. I thanked him for sharing his feelings, and that it was good to get to know him better, and that I hoped I could also improve the connection between myself and the people in my life. “Thank you for listening,” he said. He put a few more lines to his journal then packed up saying he was going to go inside and look for some socks and a new shirt in the clothes bank.
There are many stories like that, but I share this one, because it illustrates what can emerge when one feels safe, respected and valued. John was open and trusting enough to share a highly personal and painful story, and of course I could relate to his feeling of regret and also his hope for a more connected future with his kids. The impact of Amahoro House in that moment was that it allowed John to share his heart’s great hope for reconciliation. He allowed himself to hope for a little grace, and I bore witness to the emergence of that hope. And it was healing for us both I think.