I spent four years working the overnight shift in an assisted living community. It wasn’t a job I ever expected to have. Ever since outgrowing my childhood dream of being a nurse and mountain climber, my main criteria for a job was that it not be remotely medical. But after getting laid off and spending months job hunting, I wasn’t in any position to be picky.
I learned a lot in those four years. Some of the lessons were expected. I learned about medications and checking vitals. I learned how to test blood sugar and redirect someone with dementia. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to properly make a bed. I also learned things like which bodily fluids gross me out and which don’t really bother me … and how when someone else is scared or sick or in pain none of that matters.
What I didn’t expect to learn about was love.
Sometimes lessons about love showed up in obvious places. I saw love in the couples still keeping their vows to care for each other after sixty years of marriage—even if more and more often that care looked like pushing a call button to ask for help. I saw love in the eyes of the widower who still woke every night searching for the wife he’d buried twenty years before.
I heard love in the lifetimes of stories shared with me. Stories of wars and bowling tournaments. Weddings and funerals. Stories of grandchildren visiting and families that lived too far away. There was love in the day-to-day of factory jobs and driving tractors, of cooking dinners and favorite books. I heard love in the births of children and selling of homes. It was there in the stories of pets adopted and friends lost.
But there’s a difference between learning about love and learning to love.
I didn’t expect to find love in the middle of doing a job I didn’t want. I didn’t expect to visit the nursing home on my day off to spend time with someone who now needed more care than our community could provide. I didn’t expect to lose sleep worrying about the one who was sick or to be eager to hear the details of the grandchildren’s visit. How do we learn to love strangers who are paying for our care?
In Sea of Poppies by Amitay Ghosh, Neel, a character who previously always had servants to take care of his every need, finds himself caring for an opium addict. While contemplating how love develops between the nurturer and the nurtured, he wondered:
Was it possible that the mere fact of using one’s hands and investing one’s attention in someone other than oneself, created a pride and tenderness that had nothing whatever to do with the response of the object of one’s care—just as a craftsman’s love for his handiwork is in no way diminished by the fact of it being unreciprocated?
It’s not so hard to understand why we would give our time and attention to care for those who love us in return. But what about the stranger? What about those we are called to care for simply because they have a need? Is it just a matter of gritting our teeth and doing our duty—or is there something about the act of caring that grows love in its midst?
With some residents the affection came easily. They not only told me about their lives, but also asked about mine. Our conversations felt like friendship and even a complicated bedtime routine could be the highlight of my day.
With others the relationship wasn’t as reciprocal. Some had abundant needs and showed little gratitude or were dissatisfied no matter how hard I tried. Others monopolized my time repeating the same stories I’d heard a hundred times before. Some pushed their call button every few minutes just to reassure themselves someone would come.
To be honest, I didn’t always feel like listening to repetitive stories, and I could have tended to their physical needs without really paying attention. It’s hard to keep giving when my efforts aren’t appreciated. But I chose to truly listen, to pay attention to the skin I was lotioning or hair I was combing, to talk to the one on hospice who could no longer respond.
Through the bathing and the dressing and the checking in on them while they slept, a sense of fierce caring grew in me—even for those who never uttered a word in my presence or whose only words were often angry. Our stories intersected for a time and through investing my attention in them I came to love them, whether or not I felt love in return.
Isn’t that the way it often works? Love isn’t about the response we get in return for our affection. Love is born in the showing up again and again with care and attention in the midst of the weariness, repetition and mess. We love not in spite of another’s need but through it.
When have you experienced love growing in the midst of tending needs? With a child? A neighbor? Where can you invest your attention and care? Who do you want to love?