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Opening the Heart to Difficult People

Erysimum cheiri gold garden flowers. From Wikimedia Commons.

Rick was a hardscrabble kid from Indiana who came to Zen Hospice Project’s (ZHP) four-patient guest house in downtown San Francisco with AIDS. He was not yet 20. I’d been volunteering with ZHP one day a week for six months when Rick arrived from a residence hotel in the sleazy Tenderloin district, where he probably served his customers. These were the facts I knew before I met him. I’d already made and lost a dear friend while working at the hospice, and my heart was open—you might say it was broken open—to taking in this waif dying at so young an age.

I entered his room slowly, as I did with all the patients there. Bed-bound so much, it disturbed them when someone rushed in talking. At his bedside, I said, “Hi, Rick, my name is Rebecca, I’m a volunteer. I just wanted to check in with you.” Rick met my eyes with a neutral gaze. “How are you doing?” I asked.

“Well, how the hell do you think I’m doing?” he growled. “I’m here, aren’t I?” Then he must have seen how his words affected me. His face softened and he tentatively smiled. “I’m here . . . home, where I belong.” That statement would charm most ZHP volunteers and staff.

I wasn’t fooled, though. Charm must be a huge asset in his profession. His eyes never left my face as I recovered my poise and asked, “Can I get you anything?”

He seemed to realize his charm had failed. In a flat voice, he requested a ham and cheese sandwich with mustard and mayonnaise. While inspecting it, he asked, “What took you so long? I’m hungry!” He lifted it to his mouth and said, “Hey, how come I didn’t get any chips?” 

Over the next several weeks, I noticed Rick would take advantage of any kindness from volunteers to try to get something more. With other patients he made friends, especially Ellie, a dear woman in her mid-nineties. He’d always greet her with a kiss on the cheek, making her grin with delight. But I had seen how manipulative he was.

One week, I was assigned the task of collecting the patients’ life stories, and when I asked Rick, I got much more than I expected. When he understood what I was asking, he settled down to it. His father beat him from an early age, but more severely once he decided Rick was a “fairy.” Shortly after his 14th birthday, Rick ran away.

Wherever Rick went, he was exploited. In Chicago he was given shelter by a prostitute in exchange for taking her daughter out of the apartment while she had a customer. When her older son showed up in the dead of winter, Rick had to move on. He tended bar in Denver and kept the place clean for a room next to the owner’s, who liked to keep Rick “handy.” When he said that, I caught a glimpse of the wounds so many people had inflicted. Then he smirked. “But when he was asleep I’d go downstairs and get into the till.” He poked his chest proudly with his thumb. “I got even.” 

The Zen teacher who taught us hospice volunteers about the brahmaviharas, also known as the “four immeasurables” (loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), had made it clear that these states of the mind and heart work together. Rick’s story showed me how. As I listened to his tale and saw before me how it ended, my heart opened with compassion. The behaviors that bothered me clearly arose from his own deep suffering.

A few weeks later, I found Rick flushed and drenched in sweat, and I got a cool wet cloth to wipe his face. We changed his shirt and sheets and gradually he got comfortable. Later that afternoon he looked drawn and felt cold to the touch. I called the nurse’s aide, whose thermometer under Rick’s arm read 92.7° F. This time I bundled him up with blankets and heating pads, and sat down beside his bed. I brushed the hair back from his soft blue eyes. “You look cute,” I said.

“Cute!” he scoffed. “How could I look cute like this?”

He smiled though, and as I smiled back, I felt something much stronger than just liking him. I still wouldn’t seek Rick out for friendship, but I realized I loved him as much as any other being. Compassion had overcome my personal dislike and opened my heart to loving kindness for him as well as all beings. It was a powerful feeling, like being relieved of a terrible burden.

I told him, “Volunteering here, I’ve begun to see beyond people’s illness, Rick. That can’t hide what we really are inside. And you are as beautiful as anyone.”

Rebecca Dixon has had a daily meditation practice since 1992 and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area since early in this century. In addition to her years with hospice, she has spent several years teaching meditation to incarcerated women and to the chemically dependent. A graduate of Spirit Rock’s CDL teachers training program, Rebecca is now a guiding teacher at two weekly sanghas in the Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.This is the second in a series of articles written by Rebecca Dixon for Buddhistdoor on hospice work: read her earlier contribution, “Overcoming the Near Enemy of Lovingkindness.” The facts of this story are drawn from the same material as a memoir in progress entitled Dreaming Rachel.

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