The Healing TreeArts
It was a perfect day for a dedication. And for two funerals. We were dedicating the Memorial Hospital Healing Garden, but inevitably, the replanting of The Healing Tree in the space that Jerry Landerall had left for “just the right tree” took me back to the funerals for Mark and Maggie – funerals I’d missed because I was in a hospital bed. Over the past three years, Jerry’s magic had transformed The Healing Tree from a dying stump of a bonsai tree less than a foot tall into a strapping 12-foot sapling that already cast enough shade to shelter a family picnic. And today we were putting it in the ground.
Robbie was sitting in the folding chair next to me, reading over his notes. He’d been asked to say a few words about Maggie later in the program, when they unveiled a plaque commemorating her contributions to the soul of the hospital. For me, it was another salted ice cream moment, bitter and sweet. I couldn’t have been more proud of my son, who every day reminded me even more of his father. And who in a little over a month would be leaving for California to begin his pre-med studies at Stanford University, leaving me an empty-nester who still had a broken wing.
Since taking Maggie’s place as the hospital’s poetry therapist two years earlier, I’d found myself not only writing verse, but also thinking in verse. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I retrieved the pink journal from the pouch on my wheelchair and scribbled a few notes for a poem about how Robbie the son was a reflection of Mark the father, and yet was also becoming his own man.
There was a man in the rearview mirror
I thought I’d lost him
But now I see him again
Running toward the horizon
Pat Franklin, the CEO whose vision it was to create sanctuaries like the Healing Garden around the hospital, was speaking but I was hardly listening to him. Instead, I was sedating the butterflies by visualizing myself propelling my wheelchair up the ramp to the stage and then speaking to the hundred-some friends and dignitaries arrayed in folding chairs around the garden. And reading them a poem. I missed Mark sorely and would have given almost anything to have my legs back, but still (though the realization evolved slowly) the accident had brought blessings in its wake. One of them, I smiled to think, was that my knees could no longer shake.
“This garden represents our commitment to healing for the whole person.” Pat looked up from his notes and scanned the audience, including a reassuring nod in my direction, probably imperceptible to anyone but me. “True healing recognizes not only our physical needs, but also our emotional and spiritual needs. It is not enough for us to cure the body, important as that is. We must also care for the soul.” Pat went on to recount some of the things the hospital had done, and was planning to do, for what he called the softer side of a healing environment. I went on visualizing strength flowing into my arms so I wouldn’t humiliate myself by rolling backwards down that ramp after being introduced.
“Let me say one more thing before we bring up Carrie Anne Murphy, our poetry therapist.” Hearing the CEO say my name instantly woke up all those sleeping butterflies. “It’s probably not something you’d expect a CEO to say, but our patients aren’t the only ones who are in need of healing. It’s all of us. I am painfully aware of the pain our people must leave in the parking lot every day when they come to work. Family problems, financial difficulties, emotional stress – these things demand care every bit as much as a broken leg or a virus. That’s why we are redoubling our commitment to care for each other. Earlier, you heard our chief nurse executive Donna Westfall ask, ‘who cares for the caregiver?’ Well, the answer to that question has to be us. All of us. That’s why I’ve asked Carrie Anne to expand our successful poetry therapy program to bring in staff as well as patients.”
With one ear I heard Pat reading my introduction. With the other, I listened for the whisper of Maggie’s voice reminding me that I could do this. As Pat lowered the microphone to my level, I wheeled myself up the ramp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Amanda give me a thumbs-up when I reached the stage.
Who would have thought that the journey which began in a high corner of the emergency trauma room would have brought me to this point? I thanked Pat, then began. “The formula for spiritual health is the same as the formula for physical health. Avoid things that are harmful, and do things that are beneficial. It’s just that simple. Simple, though not always easy. One of the poems Maggie shared with me early in my hospital stay was about turning every complaint into either a blessing or a solution. Now, instead of being bitter about being paralyzed, I’m grateful for living at a time when so much can be done for paraplegics. And I’m privileged to be part of the effort to find new ways that we can do a better job of making this hospital, and our world, more accessible to people with physical limitations.”
I had not cleared my speech with the CEO, nor had he asked me to, but I was still apprehensive about the challenge I was going to issue to my hospital colleagues. Proceed until apprehended. I proceeded. “Maggie was right. I’ve come to realize just how emotionally toxic complaining is – not just for those who do the complaining, but for everyone around them. Many years ago, we made this a smoke-free hospital. We did this for the physical health of our patients and our employees. For the same reason, I challenge us to eliminate the emotional toxicity that is so harmful to our spiritual health.”
I paused to read my audience. So far, so good. “It’s been said that pain is mandatory, but misery is optional. As I sit in this wheelchair, I tell you that truer words were never spoken. There is, of course, a lot of pain in our hospital, and as Pat mentioned, it’s not only our patients. But there’s also a lot of misery, much of it petty misery, so petty we don’t even notice it unless we’re paying attention. But all that petty misery accumulates, and it affects our ability to be the best caregivers we can be, to be the best parents we can be. The sad thing is, most of that misery is self-inflicted. And it is unnecessary.”
I took a sip of water from the bottle that I always kept on the side of the wheelchair and smiled at another mini-blessing: a wheelchair is handy for hauling around a daily supply of groceries. Then I continued. “What if I could wave a magic wand and for one month erase all the emotional toxicity in this hospital, the way we eliminated toxic cigarette smoke? Instead of whining about how far away they had to park, people would thank God they had legs to enjoy the walk in from the parking lot. Instead of moaning about the food, they would give Pat suggestions for how the cafeteria could make more money selling the sort of food they like... I guarantee he would listen.” Pat nodded his emphatic agreement, earning laughter and scattered requests for swordfish, tacos, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. “And instead of complaining about the patient in Bed 238, they would imagine themselves in that bed, and give the kind of care that they would want to receive.”
At his point, I departed from my prepared remarks. “That was my room. I spent so many months in Bed 238 that I almost put roots down into the mattress. You know, our patients can tell right away who really cares and who’s just going through the motions for a paycheck. And I’ll tell you this. You can’t be what Maggie called a bitter pickle-sucker out in the corridor and somehow transform yourself into a genuinely compassionate caregiver when you walk into a patient’s room. Patients see right through the fraud.”
I surveyed the audience, then returned to my planned speech. “What do you think would happen at the end of that month, the first time someone started to whine about the parking, moan about the food, or complain about the patients?” No answers. I continued. “I’ll tell you what would happen. The same thing that would happen if someone were to light a cigarette today – they’d be shown to the next county.” Everyone laughed, and no one louder than Bill Morton, the only member of the administrative team who still smoked.
“I challenge us to make Memorial the world’s first misery-free hospital. That doesn’t mean we won’t have pain, it just means that we will no longer complain about our pain. We’ll no longer inflict misery upon ourselves, and upon each other. It’s a paradox that by refusing to allow the misery, we’ll do a much better job of easing the pain. I learned that from a nurse right here at Memorial, the night she took a bit of extra time to read Emily Dickinson to me, and to tell me about Florence Nightingale.” I waved to Evelyn Foster, who was seated in a folding chair parked next to the fountain, and she blushed. “Florence never complained,” I continued, “and she had to endure a lot more than any of us ever do.” Evelyn smiled and nodded in agreement.
“I know some of you are thinking it would take a miracle, and you’re probably right, but one thing I’ve learned since becoming paralyzed is that miracles do happen. In fact, I now routinely expect them. And before you call me a Pollyanna, you should go back and read that story, or watch the movie, because that little girl Pollyanna, despite being paralyzed, did for her community precisely what I am prescribing for Memorial Hospital – she made a miracle happen. And we can too.”
I looked down at Bill Terry, whose Indy 500 wheelchair was parked at the end of the front row, and saw him mouth the word “amen,” possibly referring to the fact that he’d finally taught me how to juggle. I winked at him, then continued. “Something else I’ve learned through my experience is that a healthy soul requires exercise every bit as much as a healthy body does. And poetry is a wonderful soul-building exercise. It’s my pleasure to announce that over the next year, we will be inviting guest poets to give readings here at Memorial Hospital. We’ll also be holding workshops for employees who would like to learn more about poetry as a means of self-exploration and self-expression.”
I paused for a moment to reassure the butterflies, then retrieved the pink journal from the pouch on my wheelchair. “I’ll close with a poem for the caregivers, and point out that we all have the opportunity to be caregivers, caring for each other. It’s called Growing Soul.” I took a deep breath, then commenced my first public poetry reading since the ninth grade.
Take care of your garden, caregiver
Don’t plant it with brambles and weeds
You won’t grow orchids and roses
If in spring you plant dandelion seeds
Take care of your garden, caregiver
Nurture it with kindness and care
Help delicate buds become lovely flowers
With water and sunshine and prayer
Take care of your garden, caregiver
Protect it from bugs and from blight
Walk daily the rows with a vigilant eye
Shelter it from frost in the night
Take care of your garden, caregiver
At its heart erect a maypole
Then dance and sing as twilight falls round
Cultivate this home for your soul
I acknowledged the polite applause and closed the pink journal. “Way to go, Carrie Anne!” The raucous shout came from the far corner of the Healing Garden. Maggie was jumping up and down on the wooden bench, waving her arms like a cheerleader with pom-poms. Nobody else seemed to see or hear her. I blinked hard, and when I reopened my eyes, she had returned to the sea.
- The Healing Tree
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Questions for discussion
- About the Author