The white closet

It was late morning, and many residents drank a cup of coffee in the living room. She, a 86 years old lady who could no longer speak because of her disease, lived on the ground floor in a closed ward. She was sitting in front of the television when I came in. I told her I was coming for her and if she wanted to go with me. She got up and walked briskly to her room. She sat on the bed, and I settled on the only chair in the room. Her room was spacious and high and overlooked the garden. Portraits of two young women hung on the wall. When I asked her about the photos, she shrugged. Not because she wasn’t interested but because she didn’t know who they were. On the edge of her bed, she mostly kept looking straight ahead. Emotions were hard to read on her face, yet I wanted to see if we could connect. It would be a wordless connection and, therefore, precious if it were successful.

I decided to sit next to this lady on the bed. What did she see, sitting on her bed?

She looked at a large brown wardrobe. Her gaze remained on it as we sat silently next to each other. Since we couldn’t communicate with words, I gently took her hand and asked her to walk to the closet with me. She got up and walked along. The first thing she did when she got to the cabinet was touch it. She ran her fingers over the wood and looked intently at it. 

Immediately a lot of questions arise:  

  1. Was there something in the closet? 
  2. Was the closet key for the connection? 
  3. Was it the color of the cabinet that disturbed her? 

Everything inside me felt there was something. 

I looked around the room and saw an art book. I picked it up and showed her colors as we stood by the closet. She always pointed to white. And I doubted whether I understood her, whether she understood me, or whether we understood each other. She walked to the other side of the cupboard and again rubbed the wood with her fingers.

I asked her to sit down and said I’ll be right back. I walked to the front desk and asked if anyone had any sandpaper. That was, of course, not the case. So I returned to her and sat on the bed again while she looked back at the closet. I picked up the book and asked her to point out a color; she pointed to white again. I looked around her room; what could I see that I had not yet seen? I saw small statues that she made by herself. Could it be that she was very handy in the past and could paint? I’d take the chance.

I said goodbye to her and told her I hoped I understood her well. I walked to the house manager and shared my assumption. I asked if they were willing to try this; after only a brief hesitation, they said yes!

Two weeks later, I received a beautiful, thorough, and precise photo of the painted woman whitewashing her cupboard. I was speechless; we had understood each other!

For me, this is the beauty of listening WITH a human being instead of listening TO a human being.