She reached into her purse, dug deep with shaking hands and found what she was looking for.
"You've been very nice, I want you to have this."
I looked around, made sure nobody was looking and conspiratorially took her offering.
"I really shouldn't,” I whispered; “We’re not supposed to take gifts."
"You deserve it," she said, then sat next to her ninety-three year old sister, who we had just brought into the ER. Another sister stood at the foot of the hospital bed, watching everything. We had just left their home, the one they had lived in since birth. Their father built the place, in the North End, back when the family garden took up two lots. Now, those fertile fields are filled with more houses, and more people, most of whom don't give "the old ladies" the time of day.
"Make sure you give some to the other man," she said. "He was nice too."
Back in the truck we split up the bounty. There were five altogether; I took three and gave John two. Rank has its privileges.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“A token of appreciation from a person that time has forgotten.”
“One of the little old ladies gave them to me. She told me to tell you that you were nice.”
“That was nice.”
“Yeah it was.”
I live for those moments of grace that happen when I least expect it. What could have been a mundane call for a routine transport turned into a trip down memory lane for three nice ladies who came from a different Providence than I now occupy. The patient was stable, but needed medical attention, and still managed to join her sisters as they described their home and how it was “back in the day”—when boys would try to date them but their father forbade it, and they would walk Charles Street together and people would greet them kindly, and men in carts sold fruit, or meat, or even rags. What had started as a ride to the hospital became something else entirely, and the three ladies were transformed from their tired, old selves into three energetic, mischievous people with some great stories to tell. They loved telling them, and having somebody to listen attentively made all the difference.
Listening is easy, when you take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth, as a different “old-timer” once told me when I couldn’t hear what he was saying because I was too busy talking. Having three sisters who had lived a total of nearly three hundred years in my company was the perfect opportunity for me to let them be heard, and appreciated.
It never fails to amaze me how beneficial listening is to people who may not have a lot of people left in their lives to talk to. Simply listening attentively as the ladies went back and forth improved the patient’s condition considerably; her back pain from a previous fall may have still been present, but her vitality had returned in the brief time that we were together. She started moving her hands as she told me about the roller skating rink that used to be where a rundown apartment building now stood.
The radio clicked to life, taking me away from my reverie.
“Rescue 1; respond to Elmwood Avenue for an elderly female with a dog bite.”
“Rescue 1 on the way.”
She never heard the dog coming as she rummaged through the trash, looking for something, anything of value. She's been at it for years, one of those characters that make the inner city so colorful. She doesn't bother anybody, and everybody knows her, but nobody knows her name, or where she rests at night, or if she has family close by. She's a ghost, maybe, one that simply appears, finds some things to keep her going, and then slips back to where she came from.
The dog didn't believe in ghosts. He got hold of her leg, twisted and shook, took a big chunk of her calf with him, and spit it out on the ground next to where she lay. For such a little lady she sure held a lot of blood. The German Shepherd was simply doing what dogs do, defending his turf. He gave the lady a warning bark, which she ignored—not because she wanted to, but because she is deaf and mute, which is something I didn't know until I had her as a patient and she couldn't tell me anything about herself or her injuries.
I calmed her fears the best I could, John gently cleaned and dressed her wounds, and we smiled at each other as we rode the bumpy streets toward the ER. I wasn’t able to find out much—no name, no date of birth, no pertinent medical history—but I did manage to make her comfortable, and she was able to relax somewhat as we took her away from the streets, which were more than streets to her; they were her home. A Cambodian interpreter at the hospital fared no better. I guess there is no such thing as Cambodian sign language, just the universal kind that is understood by people who understand that way of communicating. I didn’t know that there is only one official way to do sign language; it never occurred to me and I always assumed that there was Spanish, Russian, Chinese and every other language represented by the hand movements.
I do know that when I peeked into her room an hour or so after I brought her in, she recognized me and smiled, and pointed to me and then the door, and nodded her head up and down. I think she wanted me to take her back to where I found her. I tried to listen some more, but the doctor and social worker came in, and she stopped smiling. They closed the curtain, and she was gone. But her smile remained for the rest of the shift. I heard that, loud and clear.
Michael Morse, EMT-C, is captain of Rescue 5 in Providence, RI, and has served on the city's busiest engine, ladder and rescue squads as a firefighter, rescue technician and lieutenant during his 21-year career. He is the author of the books Rescuing Providence and Responding.