Today I went on a house call to see a man who is dying; his family told me he hadn't slept for a week, and they hoped I could help him get some rest.
This patient is a lovely man, both gracious and graceful, who welcomed me with a kindly formality into his home in spite of being obviously exhausted and in several different kinds of distress. I helped him lie down, explained what I was going to do and what he would feel, rolled down his socks and rolled us the legs of his pajamas, and went to work. I swabbed his translucent skin; I slipped acupuncture needles into intricate labyrinths of capillaries the color of bruised fruit; I pressed my thumbs into the soles of his cold, edematous feet. I sat next to his bed, working hard to stay focused and relaxed, trying to hold the mood of the room in a quiet, peaceful place. After a while, I motioned for his daughter, who was sitting on a couch at the edge of the room with her mother, to switch seats with me; I whispered to her to think about sending her father calm energy. I watched as she took her place next to him, closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Every time she heard her father fretfully stir she'd open her eyes, tilt her head and smile at him, sending him gently back to sleep.
I am neither a professional singer nor a religious person, but once I was both. I haven't been either for a long time, which I am most of the time okay with. The thing is, through every breath of my visit with this patient I kept hearing the first line of this hymn I sang when I was a fervently devout teenager: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." That's the first line of the Prayer of St. Francis, but I didn't remember the whole hymn--my prayer today, my involuntary prayer, was just that one line, a short, silent, constant prayer. I don't know exactly who I pray to when I pray, but I knew what I wanted to be able to do for this man. I called on the Judeo-Christian God my mother raised me with to bring this patient peace. I called on the new-agey concept of the universe. I called on the pragmatic and academic theological ideals in which my father believed. I called on my mother, hoping with a wobbly mixture of self-conscious conviction and educated doubt that she could hear me. And I called, most strongly, on my love for Kamal.
Because my love for Kamal is the most effective tool in my work, and it's one I didn't even have till a little over a year ago. It blows my mind how much it's changed my practice for the better. Of course I always knew that every patient I see was once a baby, and I would remind myself of this whenever I felt unusually challenged in finding empathy for a patient--but I know it in a deeper part of my body now that I know Kamal. I don't have to remind myself; the knowing is in my cells, in my nerve endings; childbirth ground it into the base of my spine and from there it anchors me and I can't drift. I know that every body I touch was once small and fat and dimpled, dearer to one mother than anything else could possibly be. I know when I part white wisps of hair to swab acupuncture points on the scalp that that hair was once downy as a new chick's; that every fraction of an inch of it was beloved; that that one mother shed a few tears the first time it was cut; that she might have saved a curl of it between the pages of a book, lost now to time but no less precious for that. I know that the veiny old-man feet I held today, tried to warm with my inadequate hands, carefully pulled socks back over were once kissed and tickled with as much plain and straightforward joy as I kiss and tickle Kamal's little paws.
Loving humankind is what made me an acupuncturist, but loving this one tiny little human is what makes me know I am supposed to be one. Loving him! Holy moly. It is an unending education, a rubato unspooling, a moment-by-moment redemption. Thank God, thank the universe, thank goodness for my child. Thank you, Mom, for your grandson's wide, bright eyes and ready smile. Thank you, Kamal, my sweet baby, my saving grace, for letting me be your mama.