Do you have a favorite day of the week? For a while mine was Monday, because it used to be my day off. I would sleep in until 8, watch the news in bed with some tea, and revel in the strange emptiness of grocery stores and Target at 11am on a weekday. In the early 2000s, my favorite day shifted to the weekend, where Saturday reigned supreme as the bearer of college football for a few months each year.
Wednesdays are my favorite now, because on Wednesdays I am a janitor. Between 8:30 and 9:00, I turn right on North Wood Drive, show my base access pass, and wend my way to Lot Z at the far end of the Walter Reed National Medical Center. Throughout August, I trained with the American Red Cross- working in the office, learning how to enroll new volunteers, being mindful of HIPAA constraints, and finally passing a security questionnaire that assured the folks that they were not letting a lunatic run wild on campus.
I’ve been placed in the Physical Therapy department, where my main obligation is simple and ambitious: prepare the space for incoming patients, and remove sheets, towels, pillows and implements after those patients are gone. And then re-dress the bed. Over and over this pattern repeats, and I find myself considering how massive the laundry operation must be at a hospital facility of this size. During my 3-4 hour stint, I must go through a hundred of these things, and the MATC next door (where I will start training soon) looks like it uses even more- and that’s not counting OT or the inpatient ward upstairs.
The sheets are folded neatly, as are the pillowcases and towels. They are all the exact same size, unlike the unruly cumulonimbus failures that are carefully hidden behind other things in my own linen closet. Some are very soft, like they used too much Snuggle. Some are scratchy and stiff. Most have WRNMMC stamped on them, but my favorites are the ones from when this place was just called Bethesda Naval. They tend to be very soft, a little grey, and made better than the others.
I wear a bright blue vest with a Red Cross patch on the back. I am visible, and stand out as a visitor in this arena. This work is physical. By the end, I am sweaty and hungry.
The old man in the on-site convenience store looks at the blue vest and tells me I am too young to be a volunteer. “You are not retired! All the women with those vests are retired! Go do something else!” I tell him that I am just the right age for this work, and that he is too young to be giving any advice. He smiles and hands me my change. Our conversation feels old-fashioned.
I am beginning to recognize people. The friendly sailor who has to do balance work. The woman whose knee replacement became complicated. The soldier who hates any therapy requiring ice. I met a lovely gentleman yesterday who is recovering from a stroke. A living testament to the brain’s resolve to adapt, he cheerfully made conversation, driving the stationary bike down an unseen road for miles and miles. We bantered about the frustrations of nerve regeneration and compared hand function. I tried selling him on the benefits of piano lessons.
So Wednesdays are my favorite. My work at WRNMMC serves a purpose, albeit a small one. Teaching, especially at the college level, leaves me with no such reassurance. I work hard to devise interesting lectures and deliver them in a way that should engage and reward the students, but many times I depart feeling like half the class sees me as an adversary and many others are barely able to contain their contempt for the learning process. Cello students are generally more productive, but there are always a few lessons I dread: the 9 year old who hasn’t ever really practiced, the passive aggressive retiree who brings me show tunes instead of Schroeder. At the end of the day, I am sometimes left wondering if I have done anything good, anything worth doing.
A long time ago, I posted about the Deathbed Pie chart (volumes 1 and 2), and still flash forward to that inevitable moment, when (if I am lucky to live a while longer) death will be close enough to provide genuine perspective about all this stuff. It would be nice to greet that moment with the confidence that while I was not always successful at being good, or smart, or wise or cool- that at least I spent some time doing something that did not revolve around me. Something useful and of service to others.
At least on Wednesdays.