A patient walked into my office and announced in a most serious tone that her imaginary relationships are all falling apart.
She doesn’t know it, but she made my week.
“Am I dying?” she asked.
Her eyes were fixed on me. I had no place to hide. The room was filled with something I could not name. My chair began to feel too large. It was the chair of someone important. I should have taken the smaller seat. Less would have been expected of me.
I had never seen this woman before. She was a stranger to me. She was an unknown face from a sea of unknown faces that have passed through this room. She wasted no time with me. She knew the meaning of time. She took a photo from her bag to show me how she used to look. She waited for me to say something. Her eyes unnerved me. They were pleading. I wonder to this day if she saw that my eyes were pleading, too.
“Am I dying?”
She clutched her notebook. She removed her wig. She waited for a reply. I could not speak. No words were forming. I became frantic. I scrambled to find some small piece of wisdom. None came. In the end, I said what I was taught to say.
“What do you think?”
We sat for many moments in silence. I wondered if it felt like eternity to her or if my clock had simply stopped. Clocks stop when you hold back or feel dishonest in some way. Sometimes they never work again.
I am a death care provider, paid to escort cancer patients on the remainder of their run. I am the one who is supposed to hold that which has become too heavy for them. More times than not, they are the ones who hold that which has become too heavy for me.
Every day I tell myself that I have done the right thing. Inside, I know that I have not. I continue to wonder how a single decision that I have made will ripple through time. Sometimes, I am certain it will fall flat. Sometimes, I am certain I will change a course. Sometimes, I am certain that I’m not even the one who is steering.
She died one week later on a Monday morning. I knew she would. I stood at her bedside and watched the life of her move to another place. Her husband was there. So were her daughters. When the moment came, there was peace and grief surrounding her. Her obituary was simple. I clipped it from the Sunday paper and placed it alongside the other clippings I keep to remind me.
Each day is a new day, another opportunity to get it right. Maybe today I will. Maybe not. It’s one of those things I still cannot predict. Even when my heart is in the right place and I am sure of my intention, I mess up. Would I answer her differently if I could do it again?
Create a new picture, and make it your own.
For some strange reason, I’ve been thinking about the desk I had in third grade, not the desk exactly, but what I used to have in it. Two things have been coming into my mind. The first is my geography book. What I remember about my geography book is that it was bigger than all the other books in my desk, and it had a shiny, purple book cover on it. I suppose the book cover was there because we had to cover all our books in third grade. In fact, we had a deadline to cover our books. Four days. I never thought about what would happen if I didn’t cover the books by the end of the four days. They were always covered by the end of the first day of school. The deadline still bothered me, though. It was probably the first time I demonstrated something resembling compulsive behavior.
Well…that’s not true. The first time was probably around age six. I think I was six. Whenever kids learn how to tie their shoes, that’s how old I was. I had practiced a long time on my white Keds sneakers, the ones that Nicky Wybolt purposely stepped on so that they would look dirty. I think that’s when my first real compulsion began, not around having dirty sneakers, although that never thrilled me either. It had to do with the knot. I had to check every so often to make sure the laces were tied. In fact, they had to be more than just tied. The knot had to be secure. The level of security changed, of course, depending upon my activity or the house I was in or whether I had wet the bed the night before. Sometimes I checked my Keds only once a day. Sometimes, I checked every few minutes.
Back to my desk. The second thing I remember about my desk is that it stored my paste. What I remember about my paste is that it was in a little white cup with a green lid. My teacher would come around and fill our paste cups from a giant paste container. This was 1962. There were two things that worried me about the paste. First, I was always afraid that my paste would dry up. Paste dried up a lot back then. But I was also afraid of running out of paste before the next paste allotment was given. I think we had paste rationing in third grade. I can’t be sure if all the grades had it, or if it was just third grade. I just remember worrying about it and remaining pretty vigilant for fear of it running out or drying up.
I know there were other things in my third grade desk, but I can’t for the life of me remember any of them. It doesn’t surprise me. A lifetime has passed since then. I’ve never had much of a memory anyway.
I’m not sure why I’m talking about my desk. In some ways it’s like closing your eyes and randomly pointing to some place on a map as a way of deciding where you’ll take your next vacation. Then you find out that it’s not where you really want to go. What I really wanted to write about was something entirely different. I wanted to write about deaths, not desks. I wanted to write about how I spend my time these days running alongside it. I wanted to write about how I’ve died more than a few times in my life. I wanted to write about how death has been the greatest teacher to me. I wanted to write about its thorns.
Somehow, geography and paste seemed easier.
There is a bicycle shop located next door to my office. I share a courtyard with it. On most days, my window is open so that the air in the room doesn’t get stale. The bicycle shop has a sneezer, and he’s driving me crazy.
When I tell you that he sneezes all day long, I am not exaggerating. He opens the store at 11:00 am, and he promptly starts sneezing. I once clocked him at 18 sneezes in a row. I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t believe I was sitting at work counting his sneezes.
You’re probably wondering why I can’t just ignore it. I can’t. I’ve tried. Some days I find myself getting so angry at the man’s sinuses that I actually fantasize on how to take him out. Don’t worry; I’m not violent. I just can’t take much more of his sneeze-chains. They go on all day long.
Get some damned antihistamines, dude. You’re killing me!
Somehow (and believe me when I tell you that I really don’t know how,) I sucked a small pebble up my nostril yesterday. I was standing on the side of our house watching Mario from Roto Rooter pull out some ungodly clog from our sewer pipe and, just like that, with a simple intake of air, a pebble shot up my nose. I have to say that, at first, I thought a bug had decided to seek shelter inside my face, but it wasn’t a bug. It was a small stone. And as if that weren’t enough to secure a place in the house of cosmic humiliation, I then found myself face to face with one of life’s greatest challenges: how does one remove a rock lodged in one’s right nostril without appearing to the fine men of Roto Rooter as though one is picking one’s nose?
I’ve faced challenges…
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