I first met Stanley shortly after I opened my Family Practice office. Like many, he presented with a story of tragedy much too lengthy for his years. I met him soon after he had suffered a stroke, in his early 30’s. My first thoughts revolved around this young age and this awful event that left him a shell of who he once was. It wasn’t until a few years later that I really got to know him.
Like usual, Stanley would present every so many months to allow me to monitor his progress. At first, Stanley’s wife would come back to the exam room with him…similar to a mother with her child. She would answer for him and direct his portion of the interview, expecting me to be impatient with her husband who was now relegated to a childlike existence. After a few visits, he would venture back to the exam room alone as she would wait in the waiting room. It was during these visits that I was able to witness the full extent of the damage that the stroke had caused.
Thankfully the stroke did not effect him physically. Stanley wore a medium build, 70’s style, longer than average, neatly combed brown hair parted on the side. For a thought he reminded me of the Eagles’ Glenn Fry. He walked normally and retained full use of all of his physical attributes. To look at him briefly, like we too often do, you might not notice that something was wrong with Stanley. But when you truly watched him move, you could see a hint of something definitely missing. Stanley had the stature of a grown man but possessed the assurance of a child. He walked with unsure steps and looked with uncertain eyes. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. How difficult to be functioning at the level of a child trapped in a man’s body.
Talking and listening to Stanley revealed the greatest level of damage. He listened painfully trying to comprehend even the simplest of sentences. He responded even slower. When I would ask him how had he been feeling since we last talked, he struggled with a response. His answers were forced and his vocabulary was limited to short, quick, one word answers. Nothing more. He never smiled and his voice was always monotone devoid of the normal influx that we all possess. Not to be unkind….Stanley had an unhappy animated voice….a voice without joy.
Stanley would seldom make eye contact. It was though he was ashamed. He would often look down at his feet when he did speak and infrequently glance out of the corner of his eye to read your expression. He would sit with a teenagers slumped posture and often sit on his hands while on the exam table. Certainly he realized something was wrong with the way he felt. Certainly he knew something was wrong with Stanley.
It pained me to see him struggle. A simple question and answer session seemed a cruel reminder to both of us…that he was a shell of the man who he once was. After a few office visits I realized that he wasn’t going to get better. This was as good as it was going to get. Stanley was relegated to what I envisioned as an awful existence.
One day he presented a little differently. I can’t say that it was a positive change. It wasn’t. I couldn’t have imagined him looking any more lost that he usually did but….lost he did look. I found myself hanging even more on every forced word. His gait was pressured and his mannerisms suspicious. For the first time, I saw terror in his eyes.
Stanley was experiencing panic attacks. It wasn’t bad enough that he was a prisoner in his own thoughts. Now the clouded visions he lived with, brought with them…uncertainty.
Slowly and painfully he painted the scenes with trembling one word palates. Where, in the past, he found comfort in being alone, he now found fear. He always was uncomfortable around large groups of people. Now this discomfort turned to panic. He found himself trembling with thoughts of the future but haunted with visions of the past. He continued to paint me his picture. I continued to feel uneasy. His voice quivered as if a child describing nightmare after nightmare. Unfortunately, this without the promise of the morning.
I prescribed for him 2 medications. One to take daily that would eventually after several weeks allow the demons to go away. The other medication was to take on a “as needed” basis to hopefully do the same while the other, much less sedating, medicine took effect.
I explained my plan several times to make sure that he understood. I think that he did and assured him that I was just a phone call away. I escorted him into the waiting room hoping to find his wife, but she wasn’t with him. A neighbor had brought him that day. I reached out and shook Stanley’s hand, longer than I had before just to get his attention. I made him promise to call me if he needed me and to come back in 4 weeks. He gave me his one word promise without making eye contact and out the door he went. I swallowed hard and remembered my children’s first day of school.
One month went by. I walked into Stanley’s room nervous. He looked better….not completely better like I always wanted him to be…but better. I sat down on my stool and asked him how he had been. I waited patiently for his answer. So did he. He finally relayed to me that he was feeling better and for this I was glad. He then began telling me about one episode occurred about a week prior. I listened. He described waking up in the middle of the night. It was dark in his room. He felt a wave of panic come over him and immediately began shaking. He began crying. I envisioned a child afraid of the dark staring at the closet door waiting for it to open. I listened more. He stopped talking as if he didn’t know what else to say. I asked him what did he do to make the feeling go away. He thought for a while, looked down at his feet then back to me and paused for what appeared longer than usual even for Stanley.
“I said Jesus.” He told me.
“That’s all….I said Jesus.”
I just sat there waiting for him to say more…but he didn’t. He seemed a little more like himself. He seemed…..lighter. I acknowledged that I was glad that he was able to make the panic go away and then turned the conversation back over to him. He seemed that he wanted to say more but wasn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. We exchanged some small talk and advised him that I was glad that he was feeling better and that he should call me if any of these symptoms came back. I stood up off my stool and reached for the door.
“I make churches.” Stanley said to me.
Not thinking that I heard him correctly I asked what he had said.
“I make churches.”
“Out of wood….I make churches.”
I sat back down to listen to exactly what he had to say. He, in very few words, described how he cuts plywood into pieces, paints each and every part and then nails the pieces together. He fashioned his hands to show me the general height and width and even slowly described the steeple that he cuts to put on the roof. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I faintly imagined a smile growing from the corner of his mouth. But as quickly as it occurred….it faded. I asked Stanley if I could one day see one of his churches and he, quicker than usual, said, “Yes!”
I opened the exam room door and saw Stanley nervously sitting on the exam table. His eyes were dancing between me and the counter on the opposite side of the room. I initially thought that someone else was in the room until I looked in that direction. On the counter sat one of Stanley’s churches. It was taller and narrower than I had expected. The height was about 16” and more narrow than I would have made it. I picked the little church up and Stanley nervously watched as I inspected his creation.
I praised the little church…..not artificially…it was genuinely beautiful. I ran my fingers over the edge of the roof and commented on the craftsmanship. I showed him how it sat perfectly on a flat surface without rocking and then envisioned him testing the same multiple times just to assure perfection. And perfection it was!
I almost failed to realize the importance of this moment and thanked him for bringing it in and handed it back to him. But more was required I could tell. I asked him how long it took him to make it and did he make many of the little churches. He slowly shared with me that it takes him about 5 hours to make one church and that he doesn’t want to make too many because then he would be too busy. I chuckled at this comment and surprisingly…so did he. This was the first true outward emotion that I witnessed from all the years of getting to know Stanley. It was great to watch him laugh and I didn’t want him to stop.
I asked him if the little church was for sale and his body language completely changed. He sat upright and I swear I saw him stick his chest out with pride. He nodded yes and said,
I echoed his bounty and pointed out that he spent 5 hours making his little church and that he should ask more. I told him that I was interested and that I would be right back. I exited the room and imagined him jumping off the exam table, dancing to celebrate a sale. A wishful thought. I reentered the room and handed him $40.00. He looked up at me after counting the money and smiled the prideful smile that I had long yearned for. He never said the words, Thank You. He didn’t have to.
The girls in the office commented on the pretty little church and I proudly cleared a space for it on my bookshelf in the hallway of our office. Everyone could see Stanley’s little church. He was proud of his hard work and I was proud for realizing the opportunity that was placed before me to make a big difference in a young man‘s life with a tiny gesture of kindness.
She walked into my office looking finally her age. She was 61 but up until the radiation and chemotherapy for her breast cancer, she looked to be at least 15 years younger. Her Irish skin revealed what appeared to be sun burnt areas especially on her arms. She wore long sleeves this warm spring day. She adorned a scarf that would have been more fashionable when she was a young girl than today. I dared not to look beneath it. She always took pride in a full head of thick hair. Her eyes were still “sky-bright-Irish-blue”. They did look a little more fatigued than usual though.
Needless to say…I wanted to pick her up and run far away…..far away from the CT scans, the PET scans, the myriad of tests and procedures that aged her to this state….away from the radioactive beams of energy that crash through her body in an attempt to kill the cancer causing a path of destruction of both good and bad….away from the poison that was delivered into a port hanging out of her chest. I desired to possess the healing touch of GOD and deliver her from this evil….but no matter how I tried… the disease progressed.
Along with the physical changes, I noticed obvious emotional changes as well. She smiled less. She looked through weary eyes. Through reports from her husband, she often found herself in bed, sheltered from the outside world anticipating the future….tearful and afraid. She complained of severe fatigue for several days after her treatments, both mental and physical. As the fatigue would wane over the following days, it would then be time for another round of chemo or radiation. Nausea, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, abdominal pain…the entire cycle would then repeat…sore burned skin, mouth ulcers, diarrhea, body aches. The symptoms of the worse case of the flu….over and over again.
This might have superficially helped a small amount but the obvious could not be overlooked….Elizabeth had “Stage IV Breast Cancer”. A cure wasn’t impossible but also wasn’t likely.
I blew the dust off of the little church not even looking to see if any was on it. I held it in one hand as I opened the door with the other. I proudly placed Stanley’s church on the counter now in Elizabeth’s room. They both looked at me smiling as I sat back onto my stool and told of the church’s little story.
She smiled and turned her head to admire the little church and appeared honored to be acceptant of such a precious gift. Acceptant she was! She got off of the exam table with a slightly guarded gait and walked over to the counter. She bent down to look into the little churches windows. She looked over the exterior and finally picked it up carefully in her weathered hands.
She thanked me for my kindness and said that every time that the little church would light her path, she would pray for Stanley. That surprised me. I was so caught up in thinking of what I could do for Elizabeth that I couldn’t imagine her doing something for someone else.
Elizabeth, alone, in the darkness of her night will do the same.
I met with Elizabeth today in my office.
Her last PET scan revealed “The CARPENTER’S Gift”…