In many ways, my year of service began two weeks after it was scheduled to start. Though Joseph's House placed great importance on being mindful and fully present in the moment, I spent my first week there distracted by how unfamiliar this new world was. On my third day at Joseph's House, one of the residents died and the sudden initiation into the immensity of my work for the year was overwhelming. I was being asked to form genuine relationships from the moment someone entered the home to the moment I would escort that same person into a hearse. I felt so different from the people I was being asked to become one with. I was young, educated, and healthy. They were older, destitute, and dying. How am I going to do this, I wondered. How am I going to fit here?
A week later, I was at the bedside of a resident named Brad. It was my first time holding vigil by myself for someone who was near death. I was acutely aware of how Brad's labored breathing was causing my anxiety level to rise. His inability to speak left me speechless. I was nervous being so close to death, and even more mystified about what exactly I was supposed to be doing.
Not knowing what else to do, I reached for his hand. He squeezed my fingers with a strength that surprised me. I pulled my chair closer and shut my eyes. Quieting myself, I focused all of my attention on his breathing. Slowly, I inhaled and exhaled until our breaths were synchronized. Little by little, I realized how intense this moment must be for him. My breaths came easily, supported by lungs that were full of vigor. His breaths were short and rapid, maintained by a body reluctantly shutting down after its long struggle with cancer.
I looked down at our hands and for a few seconds I could not distinguish mine from his. I stared at our intertwined fingers trying to figure out why it was so difficult to see what belonged to me and what belonged to him. Then it came to me: our skin was the exact same shade of brown. We were a perfect color match. In my 22 years of life, that had never happened before. No one was ever my exact brown. Not anyone I encountered studying abroad in Zambia, not any of the models on my makeup bottles, not even anyone in my multi-racial family. No one but this stranger dying beside me. In that moment, something clicked for me.
The Krista Foundation places great emphasis on equipping Colleagues to be practitioners of intercultural competence with tools before a year of service as well as support during and after that service. There is a realization that everyone brings to an experience his or her own rich, complex cultural history. The challenge is to find a way, in the midst of what seems foreign and uncomfortable, from your own sense of normal to a place of understanding and empathy. We can spend so much time fixating on the things that divide us, that we forget to slow down, listen to each other's shared breaths, and see that our hands are meant to be held.
Brad passed away soon after that quiet afternoon. I thought of him often as I held the hands of many others who came through the Joseph's House door. No one was my exact shade of brown, but that didn't really matter. What I learned about Brad after his death was inspiring. Before his cancer, he had been a well-known advocate in Washington, D.C. for those who were homeless or suffering in the margins. He was eloquent, bold, and deeply spiritual. He began his own non-profit, dreamed about making a pilgrimage to India, and was in the process of dictating his life and philosophy to a friend so that his legacy of courage would not be forgotten. My stereotype of everyone at Joseph's House being poor, helpless people who needed my privileged service was shattered by Brad. He did not need me. He was not impressed by me. He was not inferior to me in any way.
On the contrary, I needed him to teach me how to see past the differences I had been taught to fear, and find a new way to grow in curiosity and compassion. The magnitude of how he lived and the grace with which he died still motivates me to be fearless. But the biggest lesson he taught me, the gift I will never be able to repay, was holding my hand on his deathbed. He had enough strength to refuse my presence, and yet he didn't. Brad took my hand, held it with the last of his energy, and taught me how to truly accompany.
In my experience serving in hospice, when someone is dying that person no longer cares about all of the ways that made him or her stand out in life. What matters most in those final moments is knowing that even if that person did not receive it in life, in this moment he or she is seen, heard, and adored. By holding my hand Brad taught me to make the effort to suspend my cultural lens enough to truly see, deeply hear, and come to adore those who seem different. I spent the rest of my year trying to do that, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to as well. I have learned that when all else fails, when I cannot seem to find a way to bridge the dissimilarities between myself and another, to hold out my hand. Even if the back of our hands look different, I know that the skin of our palms will be the same. That is enough.