“They stop caring. These are the people who pushed into the night or skipped lunch for the next client,” said Dr. Teresa Neira to my cohort. She counsels women diagnosed with cancer. Dr. Neira was talking about the hectic days. When patients die, or wish to. How, she’d been asked, do you care for yourself and your patients?
We sat in front of her and listened to what happens when people who care for others forget about themselves. “Some people, like interns,” she said, “come in and say, ‘Why are you here? For the paycheck?’” The interns don’t know they’re judging mirrors of themselves. A life of seeing pain and sorrow can bury passion in apathy for any advocate.
Two weeks ago, Luisa said to me, “You don’t have to work so fast.” She and Steven work with survivors of domestic violence, and she was then telling me I didn’t have to so quickly alphabetize and file the folders of information on survivors.
I laughed awkwardly and smiled, then began working again. She laughed and shrugged. So we worked, she at her desk and me in front, filing. There is little space between her desk and the cabinets, so if I want to have both cabinets opens (and I did), I have to reach over the first to put a file in the second. This is an inefficient way to file, I recognized, but I was committed until I reached the Gs and had to reach a little further—or I tried. I dropped a folder.
I closed the cabinet closest to me to grab the scattered papers. I noticed the pictures pinned to Luisa’s wall as I picked up papers. I saw familiar faces—her, Steven, other attorneys at Dade Legal Aid. Others I didn’t know. When I asked if they were family, she smiled and shook her head. “No, they used to work here. She just quit, and he worked here a long time ago. Her too.” Picture by picture, attorneys and interns at birthdays or holidays. In one, people are eating their lunch together in the conference room, a regular day.
She’s still looking at the pictures though she has finished explaining. I’d seen family pictures and those of friends, too. These, like those, were a history through images. “Steven and I joke sometimes that it’s just us. Seventeen years. People go and we don’t,” Luisa said.
Now to today. I did not file quickly. I sat, drank coffee, and talked to Luisa, to Steven. They laughed and chatted. Before I left, I saw them talk about a case. It was finished, restraining order filed. They both bent over the folder, their faces focused on the survivor’s writing.
I’ve met people who can’t care because they didn’t heed their work. I mean, here the grueling job of people like Luisa, Steven, and Teresa. Law, medicine, psychology, effective management: these are easy. Tell clients their restraining orders were denied. Listen to someone explain how they wish to end their life before cancer does. Then find a reason to smile.
I believe I was surprised to meet people still able to laugh and smile. Client after client, year after year and still Luisa can have a coffee with me in the morning and talk happily about the people she worked with. Dr. Neira told us we must remember ourselves when we work for and with others. Luisa and Steven chat. Steven plays the drums. Luisa walks to the next office and talks about her Mom, about coffee, her husband. She shares.
As I write this, I am thinking of a moment today when an attorney made coffee for people in the office. Luisa, Steven, and others leaned against walls and the refrigerator around him. They laughed and bantered. I watched them, certain I saw a family.