A nun friend who recently suffered a concussion from a fall had an MRI and other brain scans done a couple of days ago. While in the radiology waiting room she noticed the suffering of others, and wrote:
There are visibly very sick people waiting for scans. But also interesting to me how easy it was to connect, share a story or a joke and feel warmth together. We are all brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death, and when we take a few layers off to get closer to this reality, it accentuates the importance of small kindnesses and acts of being together.
Her comment reminds me of a time 20 years ago, in my lay life, when I went for a follow-up CAT scan after a year of brutal cancer treatments. Sitting in the radiology department’s waiting room I noticed an elderly Chinese couple also waiting for a scan. The worn-out looking old man in hospital clothing sat unmoving, without expression or response while his wife softly chattered incessantly at him in a disconnected manner.
Out of habit I touched the beads of my bracelet while waiting for the scan. Throughout my cancer treatments I wore a Kwan Yin bracelet that a stranger had slipped onto my wrist after I mentioned in a public venue that I had just been diagnosed with cancer. My benefactor had slipped away without me catching sight of him or her in the crowd. The mysterious arrival made it seem like a gift from heaven. The bracelet’s pale green imitation jade beads nicely caught and reflected the light, and it had a lovely glow-in-the dark (!) Kwan Yin pendant, held together by an elastic string. Despite the simple materials I treasured it, often wrapping my fingers around the beads or the tiny glowing Kwan Yin image during times of uncertainty and difficulty.
(Certainly, belief in Kwan Yin Bodhisattva isn’t taught in Theravada Buddhism, doesn’t appear in any early scriptures, has no place in early Buddhism. But who can really argue with the idea of an embodiment of compassion who listens with open heart to the cries of the world, and rescues the most helpless and desperate beings – sailors on rough seas, women fearing loss of a pregnancy, the imprisoned, and those deathly ill with a terrible disease such as cancer?)
My treatments having finished, I had returned to the hospital for a final scan just to make sure of my recovery. My fingers touched the bracelet; I no longer needed it.
On impulse I stepped up to the elderly Chinese couple, smiling broadly.
Kneeling in front of them, I gently but swiftly slipped the bracelet onto the old man’s wrist. The wife’s chatter abruptly ceased. They both stared with mouths gaping. With a quick bow, beaming with joy, I retreated to my seat on the other side of the room. Last I glanced at the couple they remained as though frozen with astonishment, staring with wide eyes at the bracelet on the man’s wrist.
One can only imagine, and marvel, what it meant to them — a healing image surely once sacred to them long years ago, coming to them so far from home, so unexpectedly, from a stranger, a smiling American girl, arriving in their time of hopeless pain. Perhaps Kwan Yin rekindled their hope. Our encounter certainly charged their energy.
I still taste the joy of that brief connection in the waiting room 20 years ago with a couple of strangers linked to my heart by old age, sickness and death, and a small act of kindness.