Two different caregivers in the “Care Center” warned me as I set off to meet my new hospice patient, “She’s very particular.” One of them said it with a slight lift of the eyebrows. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he seemed to imply. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself irritated. She’ll drive you a little crazy.” I inferred all this. It was the eyebrows. They made me apprehensive.
The other nurse, the harried one at the station, when I said the patient’s name, looking for her room, told me the same thing. “Well, she does like visitors,” she said, but then added. “But she’s very particular.”
About what? I wondered. Did she complain about her food? About the way people spoke to her? (I remembered how my 94-year-old grandmother, witty, dignified, and kind in her mannerly Old Virginia way, felt affronted by 20-somethings who called her by her first name.) Was my patient—let’s call her Mildred—particular about how you touched her things? Or her? Was she particular about language?
I don’t mind particularity. I have come to appreciate more than I used to people who are particular about their use of words, or about the way they set the table for company, or about where their food comes from. The word means paying attention to the part—the particle—the trees, for the moment, rather than the forest. Or the bark on the trees. Particularity seems to me to provide a pathway to pleasures that can only be had by means of close attention—pausing, noticing, allowing awareness to dawn “a ribbon at a time,” as Emily put it.
Mildred greeted me with a certain curious satisfaction. “I wondered if you’d actually come,” she said. You said you’d be here at 4:30, but I wondered. So. I’d passed her first test. “Sit there,” she said, gesturing toward the one chair in her half-room, tucked under the built-in desk she will never use, bedridden as she is. As I pulled the chair out, she said, “I don’t know what got on that chair. I thought someone had spilled something, but now I think it’s paint spatters from when they painted the wall. You’d think they’d know to cover the chair.” It was an apology, of sorts. I took it as a habit retained from the days when she was hostess and oversaw all provisions for guests. I didn’t see any paint, but I agreed that one had a right to expect that painters would care for the furniture.
Mildred has lost a good measure of her hearing and doesn’t see well enough to read even large-print books for very long at a time. She loves to talk, and does so with clarity and energy that belies her much-diminished physical condition. If I have questions I have to write them down in large letters. She peers at them them carefully, reading them out loud, and answers with entertaining particulars. She gets quite a bit of mileage out of even the most ordinary question—What were you doing while your husband was fighting in Japan? Where are your kids now? Why did you move back from the east coast?
The particulars in Mildred’s memory are like jewels pulled one by one from a chest. She enunciates. She corrects herself to make a point more specific—and sometimes corrects me. She notices things. I like that. I have come to appreciate her particularity as a gift in the middle of an otherwise too-hurried and sometimes scattered day. She takes careful notice of the thing at hand—and the person. When that’s me, I feel particularly honored.