Monday, February 4, 2013
Patience left the hospital this morning where she has been for over three weeks under treatment for Congestive Heart Failure, Diabetes and other problems of extreme ill health. Her son had flown in from Nigeria to bring her home and following her discharge he took her to the airport where they boarded a plane for the twelve hour flight back to Lagos.
Last night I went to the hospital to say goodbye to her. Her face was puffy and her body was swollen. She wanted to stand up and get out of bed but a nurse intervened to remind her that she was not allowed to do that. They were afraid she was too weak and might fall.
I first met patience sometime around 1989, just after she had been released from another hospital after suffering a mental breakdown. She was in the prime of her life, just turning 40 and newly arrived in the US after fleeing Nigeria in fear of her life. She had left home to escape her husband. She said she was afraid because he had begun to practice Vodun, a form of Voodoo which he took up to make him a more powerful person. He became angry when she wouldn’t renounce Christianity to join his newly found religion. When he threatened to kill her she fled the country and came to the United States, forced to leave behind her children and a comfortable upper middle class life. Had she remained anywhere in Africa, she consistently declared, she was sure her husband would have hunted her down and killed her.
She came to Meeting Ground because she was homeless and she has been a resident of the community ever since, almost 24 years, until early January when she went back into the hospital. Patience was never shy about sharing her strong Christian faith with others. For many years she helped lead Sunday chapel services and Bible study groups at Clairvaux Farm, all the time struggling with ongoing illness, mental and physical, which got worse as she grew older. She didn’t have health insurance or Medicaid, and as a result her healthcare was spotty and inconsistent. She would often not be seen for treatment until she was gravely ill and medication was always unaffordable. Then there were the inevitable indignities which are the bane of those in this country who must beg for medical attention. Once, a doctor who had been treating her pro bono abruptly canceled his services and refused to see her when she came to his office for an appointment. On another occasion, en route to the emergency room in an ambulance when she couldn’t breathe, her driver was informed that the closest hospital wouldn’t accept her and she had to be taken to another state for treatment.
So it was that Patience was here alone, without family or help. She sometimes needed more support than others had the capacity, or the willingness, to give. As Dorothy Day once noted, the requirements of love are sometimes “harsh and dreadful,” and caring for others can become a burden in spite of our best intention to be compassionate. Many who tried to help her lost their own patience in the process. There were times when Clairvaux Farm could not live up to its calling as a village. Patience was not a saint either. Like all of us, she had her stubborn ways and many of the things she did, or didn’t do, compounded her health problems. Indeed she had her faults, but becoming angry or mean-spirited was never one of them.
A young mother who had been at Clairvaux Farm with Patience, and who has since moved on successfully with her life, called me last week to talk about her experience when she was newly homeless and in despair. “Patience was a rock for me then,” she said, “she was my mother, the strong African mother I never had, and she gave me the courage to get back up on my feet.” Many other younger women felt the same way and called her Miss Patience out of their respect for her. They also helped take care of her, bringing her meals when she was too sick to come to the dining hall, dispensing her medications and keeping company when she was bedridden. These were among the times of shared happiness and fulfillment when a “shelter” became a place of true human communion.
When I said good-bye to Patience, I remembered something important that her friendship over many years had taught me. The community of Meeting Ground has always had its faults and failings; there’s no doubt about that. But it has also had a remarkable strength. There is precious little place of refuge in this world for folks like Patience. And it wasn’t just for a few weeks or months, or even years. Meeting Ground was her home for decades. For decades it was the only place on earth where she felt she belonged. I don’t know of many other places where that could have happened for Patience, as it has for so many others, including me.