The Man in Overalls


The volunteer called and said she would not be able to make her regular shift at the reception desk. As the Volunteer Coordinator, it fell to me to sit at the desk that afternoon. It happened to be a very busy day. Four patients were admitted in just two hours. I was frantically trying to keep up when a man clad in bib overalls came in the front door. He looked around slowly and approached the desk. He told me his wife was coming to the Hospice from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that afternoon. He wanted to know what room she would be in. I gave him the information, offered him a cup of coffee and invited him to make himself comfortable while he waited for the ambulance to bring his wife.

After he got his coffee, I expected him to go into the family room or go to his wife’s room to wait. Instead, he just stood there, looking at me with woefully sad eyes. The silence was heavy. I didn’t really know what to say; lots of things were racing through my mind. I was searching for something brilliant, meaningful, perhaps even profound, to say to make him feel better. I was coming up with nothing when I remembered volunteer training. Maybe this was one of those times when silence was the best choice.

So, I stopped what I was doing, looked at him and smiled, just a little. With a heavy sigh, he put his callused hands up on the ledge and began to talk, very slowly. He talked of his wife’s cancer, of her pain and of his pain, as a result of hers. He talked about his daughter and how she helped so much. He talked about his wife wanting to stay with her sister if she stabilized enough to leave here. He said he really didn’t like staying anywhere except home but right now his wishes didn’t matter much. He said all he wanted was for her not to hurt, be as happy as she could be and make the most of the time she had left. He was willing to do whatever it took, even sleep in a strange bed, if that is what she wanted.

He looked off in the distance, shook his head and told me about the many people he and his wife had helped over the years. These same people were nowhere to be found now that they could use some friendly support. His eyes became teary as he shared how the parking lot attendant at M.D. Anderson had only charged him for one day’s parking after he lost his ticket and told her he had been there for at least three days.

He marveled at how a complete stranger could be so kind when lifelong friends didn’t even call. His voice cracked as he wondered out loud why these people couldn’t just say it was too hard to visit and see his wife so sick. Instead, they said nothing and their silence really hurt. He hung his head, wiped a tear from his cheek and asked where he could smoke. After I told him, he turned slowly and left, without another word.

I sat there quietly thinking about what had just occurred. I felt so privileged to have been allowed to listen as this gentle man poured out his hurts, to me, a stranger. I don’t know why he chose me, except maybe he took the silence that I wrestled with as an invitation to say what had probably been on his mind and in his heart for a very long time. I hope he felt better after he talked. I know listening to him was a gift for me. I learned valuable lessons from that man in bib overalls. I learned never to put off calling a hurting friend, even if I don’t know what to say. I know and I care says it all.

By the way, I also learned not to judge men in bib overalls!

-Patsy Piner, Houston Hospice Volunteer Coordinator

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