Saturday, November 12, 2005

Down to Earth

Mosaic created with fd's Flickr Toys. Individual photos can be found here.

Last month when I was in town, I stopped for a chat with a landscaper who was planting some flowers in front of a bank. We talked about life and landscaping, and she was pleased I took photos of her handiwork (I mailed them to her later).

In the course of our conversation, it was clear to her that I wasn't from the area, so I told her the short version of how I ended up in Scranton by marrying a local. (Without a trace of sarcasm.) I also told her about the wedding, the lung cancer diagnosis, and how the treatment was going. She said -- with as much conviction as I'd ever seen anyone convey -- that she would pray for him, and think of us.

It was then that she told me about her husband, who was reading a newspaper in the van parked on the street a few metres away. He'd had a stroke a number of years ago (I vaguely recall 10, but it might've been a bit less); she'd been taking care of him for a long time. His condition had apparently improved, since he was sitting up and reading, but it amazed me that she was looking after him, their little dog (who was watching me carefully from the van), all the while working as a self-employed landscaper. I knew she had a full-grown son, because when I offered to mail her the photos I took, she gave me her son's business card to send the pictures to that address. So she was probably near retirement age, but as vivacious as could be.

"I love working with plants and flowers," she said, pointing to all the nearby businesses whose flowers she'd planted earlier. "It gets me outside and keeps me active."

I walked back to the car, pondering our conversation. I compared it to my experience at Mercy Hospital, when David was having an MRI and I'd gone up at the cafeteria for breakfast.

The cashier stared at me. "Do you work here? You look familiar."

I said. "But I'm here a lot; my husband's sick."

She immediately launched into a recitation of traditional wedding vows while she gave me change. Her tone was a verbal wagging of her finger:

"You said the words -- in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse... [for] as long as you both shall live...!"

I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. I don't know what this woman thought she would accomplish by shoving those words in my face -- in a hospital, no less -- but when I sat down my pre-coffee brain finally kicked in and I wanted to rush back and say, "WHO ASKED YOU?!?" I swear, some of those Mercy Hospital people need a muzzle.

The very last thing I need -- now or ever -- is a brick of tradition flung at my head by a complete stranger. Who responds to that positively? Anyone? I couldn't help but compare her to the landscaper, who was a living example of someone who took care of the priorities in her life with equanimity and didn't present them as obligations. At no time did she ever suggest that it was her duty as a wife to take care of her ailing husband, nor did she suggest that it was mine.

At the end of the day, the conscience should speak the loudest.

It's been a month since I spoke to the landscaper, and her words and positivity still echo in my mind, especially when I drive by the PNC Bank on Spruce Street. I hope she likes the pictures.