One of the first nurses my son Vasu ever met was an ER nurse. He was 18-months old and she was trying to hydrate him with an IV drip. She was not very skilled at her job.
Vasu never looked kindly on nurses after that, and I can’t say that I ever felt a strong connection with them, either. On that first ER visit, Vasu was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and nurses became part of our routine.
They were all kindhearted. Most of them were tired but managed to keep their wits about them. Only one of them almost killed him. And as far as Vasu was concerned, they were all liars. Even the best ones, the ones who took time to talk about what he liked, were suspected of having a needle. Each one had a different way of telling him that they were not going to hurt him. Some would talk to him before the poke, to try to get him to accept the needle. Others would talk after, trying to convince him that it hadn’t been so bad. None of them could keep him from panicking and screaming every time.
I can’t say that I was any smarter than they were, though. It took me a long time before I figured out I could talk to the nurses ahead of time, tell them to hide the needle behind their backs, and then hit him with it when he wasn’t looking. The poke was going to feel the same no matter what they did; at least we could take away the anxiety before—and be honest about it after.
Vasu got through treatment and was in remission for almost three years. But then the cancer returned, and there was little chance treatment would work. There were so many pokes and procedures that daily life became its own trauma. It was during this time that one of the nurses realized Vasu had never got a nursing kit. She gave him a bag of hospital goodies to help him have a little power over his medical life. Inside was a cloth doll that Vasu could draw scars on to match his own surgical wounds. There were also bandages and gauze, and several plastic syringes (not the kind with actual needles attached). Vasu’s eyes got really big when he saw all the implements laid out. He played with each one of them, acting out scenarios of being a nurse.
He had been in his own fantasies for a while, allowing me a little distraction-free reading time, when suddenly he was at my side, concern written on his face.
“Mommy?” he asked.
“Yes?” I replied.
He lifted his hand and showed me the large syringe he had selected from the bag. “Would you like some injury with hot pain in it?” he asked, and then plunged the syringe so hard into my arm that tears leaked from my eyes. Two days later I had a tiny circular bruise.
Sometimes, when life hurts too much, you need someone to share some of your pain.
I often think about this memory of Vasu. Because it reminds me how complex compassion really is. I have heard people talk about how “when the shit hits the fan, you learn who your friends are,” and I have to say how strongly I disagree with this phrase. When life happens, you do learn something about your friends. You learn that they too are human, and they too don’t know what to say, and they are just as good as you at acting out their fear and pain in rather uncomfortable ways.
Vasu went through more pain in six years than I will probably ever feel in my entire life. Far be it for me to tell him not to push that damn syringe into my arm. Sometimes, being compassionate means we should stand still and let the person we love throw a few punches. Sometimes it means that we have to say we’re sorry when we don’t really feel it, because saying sorry can change how we feel. Most of the time, being compassionate means we have to come to terms with how much we don’t know.
It’s okay to let life have some injury with hot pain in it.