Every Holy Thursday I hear the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and I just love it. The humility of Jesus, the intimacy of washing another’s feet, and the shock of the disciples remind me of the counter-cultural closeness of God. As I sat in my room last week watching a virtual Holy Thursday service, the story and ritual of feet washing made me more emotional than usual as I reflected on the foot care I provide at work.
As a community health nurse working with those experiencing homelessness, one of my responsibilities is providing biweekly foot care for a man who now has his own apartment after almost 20 years of living on the street. Problems with blood flow, unmanaged diabetes, and countless instances of frostbite have left his feet extremely sore and prone to wounds and infection. Twice a week he comes into my office and together we take the elevator down to the clinic. We find an empty exam room, he sits in a chair, and I kneel on the floor in front of him. I put on gloves to peel off dirty socks, unwrap swollen legs, and gently remove soiled dressings. I ask him how his feet feel, and he responds, “the usual, always worser”. I fill up two basins with warm water, accidentally adding so much soap that the bubbles pile up higher than the basin, and then ask him to feel the water temperature. He smiles, reaches past the bubbles to feel the water, and nods to indicate it is warm enough. While his feet soak I wash his legs and we make small talk.
We talk about sports, the weather, his apartment. Sometimes we talk about when he was living outside under bridges and the people who helped him move inside, but most days he is pretty quiet and frequently he falls asleep during the process. I scrub his feet, removing dead skin from his heels, use a wet washcloth to clean between his toes, and keep an eye out for any new signs of infection. He pulls his feet out of the basins and I dry them. Once his feet are dry, I remove my gloves and take pictures documenting the wounds on his feet. They look a million times better than they did eight months ago, and as a new nurse I am quite proud of our progress. I pull on a clean set of gloves and begin to moisturize his legs. I am careful not to apply too much pressure, and I can tell on his face when I am causing him pain. I apologize and he simply responds, “it’s okay, it has to be done” without any anger or frustration in his voice. An ointment is spread over his wounds and toenails to prevent infection and he is quick to point out any errors in my method. I place clean dressings on his feet, re-wrap his swollen legs, and pull on fresh socks. I put his sandals on his feet and roll his pants back down. “How does 12:30 on Friday sound?” I ask and he nods in agreement. As I clean up my supplies he thanks me and shuffles out the door. I have completed this process countless times, and over time I have grown to see the sanctity of this mundane, labor-intensive work.
Merriam-Webster defines a ritual as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner” but I think there can be more to it. Perhaps there are some rituals that feel less significant, like a morning routine before rushing out the door or daily tasks at work, but we can always find space for intentionality even in the simplest of rituals. As I have grown more comfortable in providing this foot care, it has become a time of reflection for me. I find myself contemplating the places these feet have walked, the trauma this man has experienced, and the vulnerability he demonstrates in trusting me to care for him. It has taken time, I’m talking like eight months of time and lots of frustration along the way, for me to arrive at this perspective and it has been hard work to reframe the way I view this task. There are still days where I dread the sound of his sandals shuffling down the hall as he arrives late to our appointment and I have to put down my other work to care for his feet. Yet I am thankful for the lessons he has taught me, the privilege of knowing him, and the healing for both of us. So I put on a smile, thank him for taking the time to see me, and we make our way to the clinic to practice the ritual of washing feet.
Amanda Latulippe: Pittsburgh, PA