When Mark handed Admantine Spine over to me 11 years ago, I was just finishing up grad school for writing. What that meant in practical terms was that I had a world-class education in reading and writing personal essays (not the most marketable skill), no money, serious debt, and no job.
I applied at the University of Iowa for one of their “merit” jobs, an umbrella term for the many clerical, custodial, trade, and service jobs at the U, and was offered a position as a nursing assistant on the hospital’s Burn Treatment Unit. That half-time job, health insurance included, was how I was able to afford the cell phone bill, the phone book ad, and the business cards to get Adamantine Spine Moving up and running again.
It’s hard even to begin to describe what it was like to work on the burn unit. When I started I was, as one nurse told me, “as green as they come” — I had never worked in healthcare, never even wiped a butt, shaved a face, or changed a bed. As an NA on the Burn Unit, I stood for hours in a tub room heated to 95 or 100 degrees (patients with little skin get cold very, very easily) and helped nurses wash burned patients. Some of them were burned so badly that looking at their wounds was liking staring straight into the sun. In that room, as a witness to so much suffering, I learned that if joy can sometimes feel limitless, boundless, so too can pain and suffering.
On days off from the hospital I would do moving jobs. Show up at a house, wrap the furniture, move everything onto the truck, and then, voila, empty house. Drive to the new house, empty the truck, and an empty house becomes a full house. The two jobs were really different, of course — the simplicity of the moving work, the lightness of it, was in some ways a relief. What often struck me, though, was that the jobs felt similar in ways that seemed surprising. Both involved service, helping others in very simple, practical ways: a patient needs her diaper changed, and you roll her and clean her and put a new diaper on, as gently and with as much dignity as you can. A customer needs an armoire that once belonged to his grandmother moved from point A to point B and you wrap it, and carry it carefully down a narrow staircase, and then strap it firmly but not too firmly to the side of the truck.
Both jobs involve an immediate intimacy, a loosening of normal boundaries: in nursing, an intimacy with bodies, and, in moving, an intimacy with the home and all the things in it normally off-limits to strangers. Both jobs involve working with people under stress, people navigating all the challenges of change.
And both jobs put you in the role of being a respectful witness to important, even once-in-a-lifetime events in peoples’ lives. In both jobs, you’re there to help people in some simple, maybe seemingly insignificant way, as they miraculously shoulder a burden too big and heavy to really fathom.
As a nursing assistant I’ve emptied a man’s colostomy bag while two daughters came to the decision it was time to take their dad off life support. And as a mover I’ve packed up boxes for a couple who could no longer safely stay in the home where they’d raised three daughters, the home where they’d lived together and slept side-by-side in the same room for 60 years.
It’s strange to be a stranger at such times: these moments can feel so intensely private, so sacred really. At such times, it can feel good to be a laborer, a helper, can feel good to have some clearly defined role.
It’s always good to be able to do a small, good thing. How much more true that is when small good things are all that can be done.