Recently, my beloved friend, Jeff Nash, died.
Jeff, 74, a person with quadriplegia since age 19, had several surgeries at Munson in February 2012. He was on a ventilator 24/7, feeding tube and kidney dialysis. After stints at two other hospitals, he remained at a Grand Rapids hospital until his death. Communicating with him required reading his expressions and lips.
And, he was fully present. Spending time with him meant being in the presence of his sweet, loving, and independent spirit.
As I grieve Jeff’s death, I’ve been thinking about the value of kindness. Currently, international websites, articles and books abound on the subject.
Most definitions of kindness include the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate. Kind people exhibit compassion, empathy and understanding in their thoughts, words and deeds. They express kindness towards themselves and others in common and unexpected ways. They know that being kind tends to breed more kindness.
Because Jeff was physically vulnerable, the kindness he received was crucial. By kindness, I don’t mean the hospital staff and visitors were medically competent or nice.
Instead, I mean he was seen — comfortably positioned in his bed, towels and blankets exactly where he wanted them. He could look out the window seeing the non-hospital world, he was shaven, given time to try and speak and that people really listened. I’m referring to deep listening — being heard as a human being in the most profound, sincere way.
Jeff was one of the kindest people you’d ever want to meet. He instinctively knew what someone needed — a kind word, joke, one of his specialty greeting cards, a hug or a long leisurely chat.
Celebrated author, George Saunders, in his 2013 convocation address at Syracuse University, told the graduates that what he regrets most in his life are his failures of kindness.
“Those moments when another human being was there in front of me, suffering and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Later in his speech he adds, “Or to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
“Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse. Try to be kinder.”
Saunders says we aren’t kinder because we deem that we’re the center of the universe, we think we’re separate from the universe and we believe that we’re permanent, that we won’t die. We foolishly think we don’t need kindness to survive and thrive. But we’re wrong.
For me, kindness is the glue that connects me to the rest of the world. When I’m struggling to feel part of the human family, a simple, yet powerful act of kindness can get me back on track.
Jeff freely gave and received kindness. I hope we can all follow his legacy.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 26 years, has used a wheelchair for 37 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.