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I sat there in stunned silence pondering this question that the Shepherd had posed. How could I know who died happier? I knew that she was waiting for a certain answer to see if I was jiving with her ways or not. I most assuredly felt I was not.
“I guess the woman who had a harder time felt more content at the end of her days,” I offered.
The Shepherd squeezed my hands, which she was still grasping. Oddly, I found this public display of affection a little awkward and embarrassing, but I didn’t know how to broach that topic with her without seeming like a complete and total jerk.
“You said what you thought I wanted you to say,” said the Shepherd. “That’s interesting. But the truth is that your gut instinct was probably right. Your first thought was probably, ‘How the hell should I know?’ Wasn’t that it?”
I just sat there. I had no idea what my face was doing, which was probably a bad thing.
The Shepherd laughed again. Guffawed, more accurately. “Go on, just say it. That was your thought. You were wondering how in the hell this old biddy expected you to know who died happier, right?”
I cracked a smile. “Yeah, ok. That’s kind of what crossed my mind.”
“THAT is the exact 100% correct response when anyone asks you a question about who is happier or more fulfilled or more contented. How in the heck do we know? Maybe the woman who had a harder time finally got the child she had always wanted but the kid was a total twirp. Maybe her husband cheated on her at the end so she had a kid but no man. Maybe the woman for whom everything seemed to come easy was plagued by mental illness and self doubt. Who knows? We can’t know unless we are in that person’s head, which is of course impossible. For now.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I felt a little sheepish I must admit. I had been busted for trying to answer just to please the Shepherd. But I liked this no BS response.
“Now,” she said, “You’re probably wondering what this has to do with my life.”
To be honest, I had forgotten that I had asked that first embarrassing question. I nodded with some uncertainty.
“The thing is, people have all kinds of ideas about why I do what I do,” said the Shepherd. “Some people have made up stories about how my father was abusive and I have been widowed 17 times so I threw my hands open and just decided to be a hobo. Other people think I must have been born like Buddha, rich and pampered, and then one day I realized I was spoiled and decided to pay everything back. None of this is 100% true, but aspects of all of it are true. I guess my point is I don’t understand why it matters. I am doing what I am doing. If it benefits some people, who cares why I am doing it?”
“I think people just want to feel more connected to you,” I offered. “You are this warm persona, this helpful being, and yet most people don’t even know your real name at this point. They want to be able to be thankful to a person and not a symbol.”
“Hm,” the Shepherd was pondering what I had said, much to my amazement. I admit, I felt a little proud of myself. Oh hubris. “I guess that could be so. Is that why you want to know about my past?”
For reasons I couldn’t pinpoint this question startled me a little. Why? I had no idea. But I pulled myself together quickly. “I want to know so I can tell your story to other people who want to know. That’s my mission as a documentarian. To document what people want to know, maybe even before they realize they want to know it.”
“Well, we will get to it. Right now though we need to go to the Children’s Hospital. There are going to be some celebrities there visiting the oncology ward. I don’t want you to film anything but I want you to watch what I do. It might give you some of this insight you are looking for.”
We put our dishes back onto our tray and put the tray on the counter. The Shepherd had a little minivan and a driver that was waiting for her. I thought that was weird. First a giant “tree house,” now a private chaperone. These things seemed to clash with her persona as a sort of Mother Theresa. I made a note to myself to keep an eye on this dichotomy.
“Follow us,” the Shepherd said. “Tony will give you directions just in case we get separated.
I got the directions from Tony the driver. He was a giant of a man with a black goatee and a black ponytail. Rather intimidating, really, at least from where I was standing by the driver-side door. His directions seemed clear enough though.
“I drive fast,” he warned.
“Duly noted,” I called over my shoulder.
After about a 15-minute drive we arrived at the hospital. I parked fairly near where Tony did so I could follow him out easily. The Shepherd confidently made her way to the oncology ward. Everyone we encountered, from the nurses to the doctors to the surgeons, all recognized her. Some nodded and smiled, some took her hands and squeezed them, and others gave her hugs. They all seemed to know why she was here. I did not. If celebrities were going to be in the ward, why did she also need to be there? It seemed to me almost like she wanted some of the attention for herself.
After making sure I didn’t have any video recording equipment running, the Shepherd had me follow her to the first room, which had three beds divided by curtains for privacy. Two adults, a man and a woman, were standing outside the first curtain, which was closed. At first I thought the child was having a procedure done, but quickly that notion fell off as I heard a child excitedly talking. It became clear that one of the celebrities, a local athlete I think, was talking to the kid inside. The Shepherd didn’t go inside the curtain though. She beelined right for the two adults, who I now presumed were that child’s parents. I stood at a respectful distance inside the doorway, watching, as the Shepherd had directed me to.
The parents, when we first peeked into the room, had been wearing strange expressions on their face that I couldn’t really read. It was not a look of happiness or excitement, but it wasn’t a look of sadness either. A nurse passed by and I asked about the three children in this room. The child in the first bed, who was getting his own celebrity one-on-one, had a brain tumor. He wasn’t expected to live out the month. “He’s such a sweetheart,” the nurse said. Her eyes instantly filled with tears. I wondered how people like her managed to handle their jobs day in and day out.
The Shepherd had been talking to the parents while I was getting debriefed by the nurse. Suddenly I saw her take the mother’s left hand in hers. She said something I could not hear, and all of a sudden the mother, the father, and the Shepherd rushed past me out the door into the waiting area down the hall. The mother barely made it out of the room before she started sobbing deep, wracking sobs. The Shepherd guided her, with the father’s help, to a chair, and then the Shepherd, standing in front of the woman, pulled her close. The woman grabbed the Shepherd’s shirt as if she was clinging for dear life, or perhaps as if she would fall through the floor if she didn’t hang on tight enough. The father was rubbing his wife’s back, but giant tears were falling out of his eyes as well. The sobbing went on for a painful long time, what seemed to me like hours. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Just watching a scene like this made me feel like a voyeur. As a documentarian I should have been used to this feeling, but watching without a camera in my hands, I felt naked and awkward.
“Go to the bathroom, wash your face, and take some deep big breaths, honey,” the Shepherd said as she brushed a few last tears from the aggrieved woman’s face. “It’ll be alright, honey. I promise.” She gave the man a giant hug and it looked almost as if he was about to sink into sobs himself, but at the last minute he thought against it. The Shepherd wiped the tears from his eyes as well. “It’ll be ok, sweetheart. Hang in there.”
Holding hands, the couple walked away from the Shepherd and towards the bathrooms around the corner. As soon as they were out of earshot, I asked her what had happened.
“Whenever celebrities come to visit people who are sick in the hospital, I try to come visit the caregivers – the parents, the family members who have been tirelessly standing watch. It’s a mixed bag for them, these events. They see their loved one happier and more excited than they have been for quite some time, but they can’t help but wonder if this is sort of the last hurrah. Will their loved one ever get the chance to be this happy again? Will they ever get to be this engaged and excited? No one ever cares for the caregivers in hospitals. Not really. They pour all of their time and energy into wishing their loved ones would get well. It’s especially hard for parents of little kids I think, because they feel pressured not to show any fear or sadness. They don’t want to upset their kids or make their kids feel scared.”
“What did you say to them?” I asked. I have to admit, my eyes were welling up. I had never thought about any of this before. It had never occurred to me.
“I told the mother that she should enjoy this moment. Savor it. Do not think about everything the child has been through or what might be coming down the way. Just really enjoy this moment, when your son is babbling away and talking about his favorite moments in sports history.”
“And that made her break down?” I asked.
“No. That question didn’t make her break down, honey,” the Shepherd said sadly and softly. The fact that someone cared, took her hand, and let her cry made her break down.
Just as the Shepherd finished talking the father showed up in the waiting room again. His lip was trembling, and it was clear he was trying with all of his might not to collapse into his own stress and grief. He looked around the corner, and assured that his wife was calm and back at their son’s side, he sat down on the ground in front of the Shepherd and put his head in her lap. He did not say anything, nor did she. She simply stroked his hair as a mother would. Mostly he cried in silence, but sometimes a groan or an exhalation would reveal the pain he was in. The Shepherd just kept stroking his hair for what seemed like a very long time.
Finally she lifted up his head with her hands. Looking into his eyes she said, “You know honey, you are being so strong for your wife and your son, but you have to make sure you take care of yourself too. Don’t hold all of this in, honey, ok?”
The man just nodded. She gave him a big hug, patted him on the back, and said, “Now you go enjoy your son’s enjoyment of this moment. This is a precious time to hold on to, no matter what happens.
The man gave her one more squeeze and headed back towards his child’s room. I looked at the Shepherd and she seemed exhausted. Tear stains marked her shirt. Tear stains marked her own face. It occurred to me that even though she had been doing this for years, these people who let all of their grief go with her, it hurt her as much as it hurt me. That’s why I was taken aback when she said, “Well, let’s see who needs us next.”
That whole afternoon that scene repeated itself. The details were different but the results were almost always the same. While the parents’ children were being entertained by famous athletes, the parents were getting their moment to give voice to all of their anger and fear and sadness. The Shepherd took care of them. Each of them. And her message was always the same. “This right now is a good moment. Hold on to this. This is all that matters right in this instant. Your child is happy and excited and flushed with being starstruck. This is special.”
When I got back to my hotel room that night, I stepped into the shower and cried harder than I have cried in quite some time. I found myself wondering if the Shepherd did the same thing.