Archives for January 2014

The Murderer and Me


(c) Shutterstock

Most of my hospice patients were bricklayers and auto executives, teachers and truck drivers.  But the murderer taught me something they couldn’t.

When he comes onto our hospice program, I learn that he went to prison for murder, was released, and then killed another person right away.  He’s been in prison ever since.  Now, dying of cancer, he’s out on the compassionate release program.  The son in a faraway state never lived with him as a child, and now only wants to know when he dies.

A bleak nursing home is the most compassion he’ll get now.

Could I just skip visiting the murderer, I wonder?  The details of his crime are awful, and the staff says he’s still mean and abusive.  What redemption can there be for him in these last few weeks?  Certainly none that I can deliver.

Would he even if I didn’t visit?  Maybe not, but I’ll know I chickened out.

My brain spins into the grandiose.  Perhaps an insightful conversation with me will unlock the past and allow breathtakingly complete repentance, right then and there.

Then my mind lands on terror.  I know exactly what will happen.  I will be his next victim, killed right there in the nursing home, in between rounds.  The next shift will find me and notify my tearful husband.

In the end, the most mundane conviction pushes me in the front door of the nursing home.

You never know where the grace of God can be found.

It belongs to all of us, and perhaps I can be a small channel of it for him, or for the staff caring for him.  Even murderers deserve grace, I keep repeating to stay calm, as I ask where to find him.  “Down at the end of that hallway,” the nurse instructs me.  “Third bed in the room.”

At the end?  Third bed, farthest in?  So far from the door?

Peeking down the hall, it seems darker than usual.  Are some of the lights off?  And where are all the food service aides, nurses, housekeepers and other residents who usually fill the corridor?  Where is everyone?

You never know where the grace of God can be found, I repeat, hoping for courage.

I head down the familiar hallway that has never seemed longer, or darker.  I round the corner, step into the room, and there is the murderer.  All 87 pounds of him, in a t-shirt and a diaper, lying on his bed.

Letting out a shaky breath, I have to laugh.  My image of the murderer, my fears and fantasies, had so taken over that I could hardly see, let alone minister to, the real person.

The murderer reminds me how often we do that to each other, at church or work or in our neighborhoods.  The executive with the Birkin bag must be a shallow workaholic – until she turns out to be a compassionate and dedicated mother, one of the few in her wealthy neighborhood who will draw a difficult line with teenagers.  The retired attorney must be a Republican – until he turns out to be a tireless campaigner for gay rights, his views refashioned by his son’s life.  The father yelling at his daughter in the parking lot must be an abusive lout – until you learn that he’s working two jobs, and is on the edge of exhaustion.  The mother who’s always in the school office must be living through her child – until you know that her child has autism, and her efforts are teaching the whole community about inclusion.

You never know where the grace of God might be found.  It belongs to all of us, even those of us with cluttered heads and trembling hearts.

I don’t know what other redemption the murderer found, but he taught me the power of starting from scratch each time.  In his dying, the murderer reminded me to let each person be a blank, and to start fresh, my over-filled mind empty and ready to see anew.


(Image via Shutterstock.)

If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

Book by the amazing Laura Numeroff

Book by the amazing Laura Numeroff

On Mondays, I read children’s books.

My partner co-conspirator is an impossibly tiny first grader, with perfect braids and miniature sparkly Toms shoes.  In the winter she walks toward me in turquoise Ugg boots.

Our matchmaker is the Reading Corps for the Detroit Public Schools.  []

When I pick her up in her classroom, she brings work assigned by the teacher to get her reading at grade level by June.  In her small hand is an easy reader book, or a word finder, or sentences to practice.  We walk upstairs to the bare room assigned to the Reading Corps, talking about her weekend.

One of the deep pleasures of motherhood, for me, was reading to my daughter.  When the stresses of the day had worn us out, we would read piles of books.  At bedtime, I was always a sucker for “one more.”  When we needed something to do, we went to the library.  As she got older and could read to herself, I read to any other kid I could get to sit still.

There’s lots of research about the impact of reading to children – about language acquisition, the number of words they hear before they talk, about learning how language is put together, and I believed it all, but mostly we read for fun.

As far as I can tell, no one has ever read to Taylor.  She says there aren’t any books at her house.

Her parents are busy with younger siblings, and maybe they’re not readers themselves.

The first week, when we finished our assigned work, I got a picture book out of my tote bag, and asked if I could read to her.  The cover picture of an African-American girl made her whole face light up.  The next book, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, made her grin at first, and then laugh, a sound I’ve come to cherish.  Now I pick books that I know will make her laugh, just for the joy of hearing that sound from a serious girl with a serious life.

We hurry through our assigned work so we can get to the tote bag of books.

The learn-to-read books for first grade are written by experts, well-chosen to teach certain sounds and words, but picture books have a magic they lack.  Richer, more complicated words.  The flow of a story.  The charm of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  Illustrations that reveal something new every trip through the book.

It’s all new to Taylor, and with her, I see the power of books for a young child.  Always surrounded by books and readers, I never saw it so clearly before.

We walk back down the hall to her classroom, her sparkly shoes twinkling, and I wish I could come every day.