By Cynthia Sartor, Companion in Mercy
I do not remember her name, and I do not remember what she looked like. I do remember seeing her only twice. It was in the spring of 1972.
Winters were always long for me, regardless of their harshness or calm. Anticipation for spring was met with a light jacket and a bi-annual cold. However, spring was always wonderful because that meant winter was leaving us.
The early 1970s were exciting years. I had just graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree and called myself a social worker. My internship was in the state hospital, where I found myself and my calling. It was there that I first realized that there was a place for me in this world. Working with those who fought daily for peace of mind and soul was where I was being drawn. My first job was working on an inpatient psychiatric unit with 36 beds. My office was the last room in the hallway before entering into the locked unit. Patients in this part of the unit were in need of increased observation and attention due to the severity of their illnesses.
It is important to remember that in the 1970’s, most mentally ill patients in state hospitals were being released into communities unprepared for them. Frequently, they were admitted to nursing homes that were ill-equipped to deal with them. All too often after they were released, they became homeless and lived on the streets. To this day, the vast majority of the homeless suffer from some kind of mental illness. At the time, new medications were being used, and many had debilitating side effects. However, it was these medications that opened the state hospitals and allowed people to live in the community. This was called “de-institutionalization.”
My first job was to help facilitate community placement for many of our patients. We called them “patients” then. To say that I enjoyed my job would be an understatement. I felt important and needed and, for the first time in my life, like I was doing something really meaningful. One day as I walked into my office, I noticed the door to the locked unit was open. An open door was an indication that those inside were doing well and were quiet. I noticed a lady seated at a table in the hallway. On the table was a bouquet of daffodils. Having just gone for coffee, I decided to join her at the table.
As was my habit, I introduced myself and asked if I could sit with her. She looked at me but said nothing. I then sat down and spoke to her; however, once again, she said nothing. Any attempts at conversation with her were met with a blank stare and no words. I felt uncomfortable yet decided to sit with her and finish my coffee. I looked at the flowers and commented on their beauty, especially since winter had been so dreary. She said nothing. Finally, I excused myself and left. She said nothing. I remember thinking that I had just wasted my time then thought nothing more about the situation. Pride and ego were in the way of seeing the importance of the moment.
Weeks later, I walked into my office to find a rather attractive, middle aged, well-dressed woman standing there. I greeted her and introduced myself. She smiled and asked if I remembered her. I apologized and said that I did not. She smiled again and said that she was the lady seated at the table with the daffodils. She told me that she remembered the day we sat together in the hall. She said that those few minutes that we had spent together had made all the difference to her and she wanted to thank me. After doing so, she quickly left, leaving me stunned and humbled.
During the 40 years I was employed as a social worker, I worked in three different mental health centers in three states, sat on various boards of directors, assisted in the development of social services and shared in community development activities. In addition, I attained a Ph.D. in social work and taught the art of the profession to aspiring students on the undergraduate level.
Each spring, regardless of where I am, I always recall the memory of the daffodil lady, and I share this story with those who will listen. Sometimes students and staff members alike remind me that I have told that story before; however, I pay them no mind. I simply re-tell the story, again and again, because if they remember it, they will remember the “Daffodil Lady.” And I want her to be remembered for what she gave me in understanding that spring day.
I learned that it is not so much what we say to one another that matters. Instead, it is the time and the caring that we invest that counts. Our presence, more than our words, helps us connect with others and assures them that they are not alone. Our presence, indeed, is the gift.
Thank you, Daffodil Lady, for not only touching my life, but also the lives of many other people. May you find peace.