For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the passage of time. Visualizing the timelines of human history became part of my life’s work as an historian, but even as early as 5th grade, I realized that my mind measured the cycles of time in shapes and colors. To make sense of a long past, humans have organized time, by hours, days, decades, centuries, eras, and ages. In the western mind, all of these categories of time stretch out from both sides of the great dividing marker of BC and AD: Before Christ and After Christ. Whether one sees time as a straight line, a circle, or a spiral, we divide up that timeline by using events we see as watershed moments.
In our own lifespan, we divide time in much the same way. Events like birth and death, marriage and divorce, loss and victory, graduations or career changes become watershed moments in our lives. As I look at my own timeline, I have those markers and the older I become, the more of them I see. But mixed in with the more dramatic dividing lines are seemingly subtler ones. Yet if I showed you a painting of my timeline, you would wonder why those small moments glow with such intense color.
I was fifteen years old and worked as a patient-care aid in a nursing home. My job consisted of feeding and bathing patients, getting them up and putting them to bed, answering their call lights. Sometimes it meant changing their soiled clothing, but often it meant assuring him that his son was coming to visit as promised. Sometimes it was convincing her that her hair still looked beautiful, or that yes, there would be cornbread for dinner because it was Tuesday.
It was often my assignment was to take care of Mrs. Hoff. I will never forget her name as long as I live, nor the way she lay in bed, all day long, unable to move or sit up in a chair. Her arms, legs, and hands were drawn up stiff and useless. She was also blind and mute. Everyone assumed her mind was gone as there was no indication of consciousness. We cared for her as best we could and played classical music on the radio beside her bed. It was soothing to us, the caregivers, at least.
On that day I will never forget, I was changing her bed sheets. I was upset and angry, confused and lonely, really in need of a listening ear. So, I talked to her. I told my silent audience all about my troubles, vented my frustration, confided my fears. When it was time to move on to the next patient, I thanked her for listening. “Thank you, Mrs. Hoff,” I said. “I don’t have anyone else I can tell.” Then I leaned over and kissed her chalky cheek as I adjusted her blanket.
As I stood at the door she could not see, I glanced back, just to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. It was at that moment, my known universe convulsed. Tears trickled from her blind eyes down her face. I stared in shocked silence. She could hear me and understand. That was an earth-shaking, watershed moment for me that brings tears to my own eyes every single time I think of that day. It was a very quiet moment, seemingly insignificant, but the understanding gained from that brief moment has influenced my life ever since.
I confess that the most jolting realization was that a person could wither away in a nursing home bed, still able to think and feel, but unable to communicate in any way. It horrified me to know that someone’s mind could exist in isolation without anyone knowing.
But the most important lesson I learned from Mrs. Hoff was to pay attention, to listen for messages that were not in the shape of words, to hear and understand meaning from silences as much as from sound. To look beyond the surface and be attentive enough to see what is hidden.
As I remember this watershed moment, I am still as overwhelmed as I was so many years ago. I have never been the same since that day, and the color of that moment is gold.
April Summitt is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at La Sierra University. She does not like avocado and worries that this fact might prevent her from being adopted as a true Californian.