One of my volunteer jobs takes me to the chemotherapy unit at the cancer clinic. There I greet patients in the waiting area, accompany them to a treatment chair, inquire about the state of their world, fuss with coats and bags, bring ice water for their meds, fetch heated blankets and extra pillows, attend to their companion(s), and inform the nursing staff know of their readiness. During the treatment, which can last been one and three-plus hours, I keep an eye on them (we have 12 such chairs, all busy all day), help with tea, coffee, and juice service, run down to fill the odd parking meter, wipe down the chair and side-table after they leave, strip and re-cover pillows, tidy up for the next patient, and generally not get in anyone’s way.
Some people want to be left alone, other respond to and invite conversation. This afternoon one patient — with harsh chemical dripping into him from several bags suspended overhead — sat hand-in-hand with his wife. They beckoned to say that the person next door needed more ice water. Afterwards we joked that if they were to be part of the team, we’d have to split tips. One segue led to another as they enquired about volunteering and my spiritual practice. At one point the man said something like I wish I was as enlightened as you are.
I brushed his words aside (prehaps too quickly) and said that I believed us all to be enlightened and the thing keeping us from experiencing our own “enlightened” state were the doubts we acquire over a life-time of suffering. Pretty much what you’d expect a zen student to say — but in that moment and that place it was the ‘right’ thing to say. The man’s eyes suddenly filled with tears and his head turned as if looking for a place to hide. I gently touched his feet. The three of us went quiet, sensing the presence of grace.