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[227]

XLV. on visiting the sick.

It is a curious fact, and one not quite creditable to the good-sense of the human race, that the one duty which is sure to devolve on everybody first or last is so often ill done. Everybody, from the roughest frontiersman to the most luxurious city-bred woman, is pretty sure, in the course of years, to be called on to visit some person who is ill. having been brought, through circumstances, somewhat in contact with invalids, I have never ceased to be astonished to see how poorly, on the whole, we discharge this inevitable and most important duty.

The first error is in regard to quantity, the second in regard to quality. We cannot, perhaps, visit the sick too much, if we have time for it; but we can easily visit them a great deal too much at any one time. Many a sick-room would be helped and gladdened by a glimpse of a friendly face every few days, for three minutes at a time. But wait for a month, and consolidate these scattered minutes into three-quarters of an hour, and how different the result! The new face soon becomes a burden, the [228] new sensation an old one; the news is told, the excitement is gone by. The patient's face, at first bright and eager, becomes tired and jaded and long, and still the visitor sits. At last she too — in case it be a woman-notices the change in her friend's look, and she springs to her feet and says, with sincere but tardy contrition, “I am afraid I have tired you.” “Oh no,” says the patient; “not at all.” It is her last gasp for that morning; she can scarcely muster strength to say it; but let us be polite or die.

Brevity is the soul of visiting, as of wit, and in both eases the soul is hard to grasp. As some preacher used to follow a sound maxim for his sermons, “No soul saved after the first twenty minutes,” so you cannot aid in saving the sick body after the first five. Harriet Martineau, in her “Life in the Sickroom,” says that invalids are fortunate if there is not some intrusive person who needs to be studiously kept at a distance. But the peril of which I speak comes not from the intrusive, but from the affectionate and the conscientious-those who bring into the room every conceivable qualification for kind service except observation and tact. The invalid's foes are they of his or her own household, or, at any rate, are near friends or kind neighbors. The kinder they are the worse, unless they are able to show this high quality in the right way. If they [229] could only learn to plan their visits on the basis of Sam Weller's love-letter, which was criticised by his father as rather short! “She'll wish there was more of it,” said Sam; “and that's the whole art oa letter-writing.” For want of this art the helpless invalid is hurt instead of helped; she cannot, like other people, assist the departure of the guest by pleading an engagement, or even by rising from the chair; she must wait until the inconsiderate visitor is gone. Under such circumstances she really needs to be saved from her friends. I remember a certain colonel in the army who was sometimes suspected of slamming, and of whom his sub-officers would say, sarcastically, some morning, “he is very ill-too ill to see his surgeon.” There are really many invalids who are too ill to see their friends and sympathizers and cousins, except with the aid of a three-minute glass, like that by which eggs are boiled.

But there is an error in respect to such visiting that is more serious than that of quantity. What is there in the outer world from which it is the hard lot of invalids to be excluded? Sunshine, fresh air, and the healthy life of mankind. These, then, are what the visitor should bring, figuratively at least, into the sick-room. Instead of these, how many bring the very opposite-clouds and shadows, and that which is unwholesome and unhealthy. They keep the invalid talking about the very things which [230] need most to be forgotten-symptoms and medicines. They discuss the varieties of medicine as topers debate the merit of different wines; and is dear Amelia quite sure that it would not be best to change her physician? Worst of all, they tell the distressing symptoms of others; the mournful cases, the bereavements, the approaching funerals. Strange to say, professional nurses themselves are very much given to this sort of talk, and would be much more beneficial companions were they dumb. Perhaps the visitor chimes in, and joins with the nurse in a melancholy duct. It is, I take it, almost impossible for any one in health to appreciate the hold that these things take upon an invalid. The visitor goes away into the outer air, and the very breeze soon carries away all memory of the misplaced conversation; but the invalid remains anchored to one spot, and broods, and broods, and broods. She is fortunate if her sleep is not broken that night by the odious phantoms for which her dear friend has, with studious care, furnished the materials.

There are other ways in which a visitor may hurt while intending only to help. There are the cross-questioners, who make the invalid do all the talking; the fingerers, who displace her cushions, drop her orange, and leave her glass of water just beyond her reach ; the gazers, who fix their eyes scrutinizingly on her, and never take them off. But enough [231] has been said to show that there is a way to do everything well or ill, and that the art of visiting the sick is not one of the things which are so absolutely easy as to require no thought or apprenticeship. It is one of the finest of the fine arts; it must have disinterested kindness at the foundation; and then implies, like all other forms of good-manners, the most delicate observation, and that prompt and clear judgment which can neither be dispensed with nor described.

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