When it came time for Cathy Aitken to speak at a recent gathering to honor Coming Home Connection, Santa Fe’s only volunteer hospice and long-term care service, she had to be transported by wheelchair to the microphone. During the long but pleasant afternoon, during which we had occupied the same general space in the chambers of the imposing Scottish Rite Temple, I had seen her only from afar and was struck by her statuesque figure and regal bearing as she sat around a table with friends. Never for a moment did I imagine that with her first sentence she would dash my first impressions of her, as well as certain notions I so stubbornly held onto about myself and my own invincibility.
“I am here to tell you that you are not whom you think you are,” she said with the first breath that she took at the microphone. “It has taken a rather dramatic personal collapse involving my health to recognize that I am not an island unto myself but, instead, a part of the main.” She added that, as an artist totally dedicated to the discipline of sculpture, she had chosen to live alone and to capably carry out all that life had demanded. In fact, for the greater part of her career, she had successfully tackled all of the tasks commonly associated with both female and male genders—cooking, building, sewing, repairs, decorating, lifting, cleaning, transporting and more. “I felt,” she said, “that I could carry on like this endlessly and not really have to depend on anyone else for what I needed. After all, in this country, culture and society, we have all been taught that, more than anything, we must be independent. Consequently, we are the most independent, most individualistic society on Earth, and I was living proof of how this was so.”
She went on to describe that, one day, she began to lose her ability to use her hands and could not even cut vegetables, let alone produce monumental sculptures. It was not long after this that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a progressively degenerative disease that involves damage to sheaths of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms may include numbness, impairment of speech and muscular coordination, blurred vision and severe fatigue.
Sometime later, when her legs stopped working, she was relegated to a wheelchair. “The evidence of all of this,” she went on to say, “made me keenly aware that I was crashing and that there was no one in my life who could help soften the blow of the fall; that is, until I met Glenys Carl, the founder and director of Coming Home Connection, Santa Fe’s hospice service. Unbelievably, this petite lady, more spirit than flesh, went shopping for me, prepared meals, cleaned my house and kept my life going.
“As a hospice nurse who knows health and illness intimately, she provided me not only with the moral and physical support I needed but, just as importantly, with medical knowledge of my condition and of what I could to do to stave off the worst of its effects. Unbelievably, in the last several years, since I came under the care and protection of Coming Home Connection, I have been able not only to maintain my dignity but also to rebuild my life in the context of a new awareness. I now know, without a hint of doubt, that I am not so much independent as interdependent, as indeed we all are or one day will be. And I have discovered that I like myself much better as part of a web of people who love and care for each other rather than as the lone wolf I used to be.
“Indeed, interdependence is a solid and magnificent bridge in which everyone does their part in upholding everyone else. When the crises in life come to pass and, indeed, sooner or later they will, you will not want to find yourself dangling from a precipice by yourself or suspended on a rickety bridge of your own making. You will want to be a part of an unshakeable bridge, the likes of Coming Home Connection and, from there, make a safe passage into another stage of your life, one you need not fear. I am so grateful to this organization, consisting of a multitude of compassionate human beings intent on serving others, and to Glenys Carl for the new life I have. She is one in a million, for few individuals who opt for a life of service stick to it!”
Coming Home Connection organizes and coordinates scores of paid and volunteer bedside-care providers to people with severe physical impairments, the elderly and the dying. The volunteers make it possible for these individuals to receive individualized quality care, remain within the warm circle of family and home and to live out their lives in dignity. Coming Home Connection is entirely sustained through grants and charitable contributions. You may contact this organization through its website: www.cominghomeconnection.org
Alejandro López is a northern New Mexico writer and photographer.