Friday, December 25, 2009

Reflections from a Christmas with Family: Home is Where the Heart is


Suddenly my world's gone and changed its face
But I still know where I'm going
I have had my mind spun around in space
And yet I've watched it growing. . .

If you're listening God please don't make it hard
to know if we should believe in the things we see
Tell us, should we run away?
Should we try and stay?
Or would it be better just to let things be?

Living here in this brand new world
might be a fantasy
But it taught me to love
so it's real, real to me

And I've learned
that we must look inside our hearts
to find . . . . a world full of love
Like yours, like mine. . . . .

Like home. . . . .


"Home" (as sung by Diana Ross as Dorothy in the 1978 Movie version of "The Wiz")

______________________________________________________________

On Christmas morning in 1996, I awoke at 8AM to several "firsts." It was my first Christmas away from home in my entire life, it was my first Christmas since I had officially become a doctor, and since I'm a California native, it was my first white Christmas. I remember staring out the window, mesmerized by the powdery blanket of snow that covered everything in sight--all contrasted by a cloudless blue sky. My new Cleveland home still felt foreign, but I will admit that the wintry scene was beautiful. For me, it was breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time. It reminded me that I had taken one more step firmly into my adult life, but also painfully underscored that being an adult comes with sacrifice.

Toto, we're not in California anymore. . . . . .

I took a quick shower and got myself ready for my twelve plus hour shift in the emergency department that day. "10A - 10P," I recall saying to a co-intern when asked about my Christmas plans. The ER lingo had now become second nature to me after nearly a month working there. As the lowest man on the totem pole, I got the booby prize-- the worst Christmas shift of them all. 10A to 10P. Scheduled smack in the meat and potatoes of the day. . . .too early a start time to join anyone for a holiday brunch and too late a finish to even tag along at someone's family feast. It pretty much sucked.

I had this tiny tabletop Christmas tree that my best friend's mom sent me that year. It came with it's own decorations and even blinking LED lights. That small gesture meant so much to me. My sister, JoLai, had sent me a small wrapped gift that sat on the glass occasional table as the lone present I would open that morning. That, too, meant more than she will ever know.

The night before my shift I had spoken to my entire family, all of whom were in California for the holiday that year. I didn't realize how much I cherished that time with my family until that first year when I was away from them. Sure, it had been years since I had stopped believing in Santa, or even woke up to the loads of wrapped gifts that mysteriously appeared after being absent the night before. But I missed just being there. . . . .the goofy family jokes and reciprocating engine of "remember whens." I wanted to argue with my siblings about pointless details of old stories, to grimace when an elder gave me too wet of a kiss, and to eat one slice of every piece of cake sitting on my Auntie Mattie's table until I was sick in my stomach. I wanted to be home.

"Maybe I can convince time to slow up,
giving me enough time in my life to grow up. . ."


That Christmas day back in '96 came and went. Over the years of my training, I missed a few more Christmases, and it seemed to be getting easier-- at least I thought. For that reason, I had no issue with taking call in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit for 24 hours on the Christmas of my final year of residency. "No big deal," I remember saying several times, hoping that I, too, would eventually believe it. The hospital cafeteria even provided the skeleton crew of resident physicians assigned to work that day with a fancy buffet. "Somebody has to work in a hospital on Christmas day," I said. I was a "big girl" now, so it was no big deal.

Sitting in my drafty call room, I placed a leisurely call to my family that year, all together once again for Christmas. My brother, Will, and his wife, Fran, had flown out from Atlanta with their two children. Both of my sisters were also there, as were my parents. I could hear and feel the energy over the phone. Laughter, joy, fun. . . . .one person after another grabbed the receiver to offer me well-wishes. "We wish you were here," my younger sister finally said. I felt a pang in my heart reminiscent of that snowy morning I spent alone with my miniature Christmas tree a few years before. I wasn't over it. I wished I was home, too.

There's no place like home. . . . . .

Now, every Christmas that I'm with my family, I allow myself to remember that feeling. It makes me appreciate the moments so much more. This year, I was doing just that while at my mother's house on Christmas eve yesterday. My sisters and I had managed to unearth a copy of the 1978 movie version of "The Wiz." (If you have never seen or heard of it, then, clearly, you are either a.) not black, b.) not from this country, c.) born after 1975, or d.) all of the above. )We gushed about how much we love, love, loved this movie, how much we listened to the soundtrack and how well we knew every song. Then we set out to prove it.

The star-studded cast of "The Wiz" included the late King of Pop Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, the great Lena Horne as The Good Witch of the East, Motown icon Diana Ross as Dorothy, and even the unforgettable funny man Richard Pryor as "The Wiz." It was the first African-American Broadway musical turned movie of its kind; surely paving the way for blockbusters such like "Dreamgirls" some thirty years later.

Oh, how we loved that movie--but check this out: Last night, my sister, Deanna, googled details on "The Wiz" movie, and we were stunned to learn that it was actually--gasp!--a commercial flop back then! Whachoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?! Turns out that the whole world was mad as hell that 34 year old Diana Ross was cast by her boo Berry Gordy as "Dorothy" instead of the star of the successful Broadway version (19 year old Stephanie Mills.) Who knew? Okay, but seriously, if Siskel and Ebert had solicited the opinions of 1970's African-American kids between the ages of 6 and 12, surely its box office history would have been different. (I'm just saying!)

Either way, from that discovery spun yet another one of our classically unimportant sibling discussions of who we saw the movie with, whether or not we cried, and more internet searches for who wrote which songs. The night was punctuated by three grown women (ages 41, 39 and 38 to be exact )dancing wildly around my mother's living room and belting out every word of every song karoake-style. It was awesome. The kids just sat there staring. I couldn't tell if they, too, thought the "Wiz" movie rocked, or if they just thought we were off our rockers. We had a blast.


This morning after watching our kids tear into their toys, Harry and I chatted about how great it was to be with family at Christmas and holidays. As we both got ourselves ready to head over to my brother's house for family dinner, I shared with him how bummed I was as an intern back in 1996. I described that white Christmas that I still remember so well as a blue one. Harry empathized, telling me about how much he hated being separated from family as a soldier during his Army days. But surprisingly, as hard as that time was for him, he went on to tell me that wouldn't trade it. "It made me a better man," he stated in his Harry-style matter-of-fact tone, "and it taught me to truly appreciate the luxury of being home with family. It's soldiers right now who have it way worse then either of us ever did." Ain't that the truth.

Well, wise Harry had done it again. . . .bringing to my attention another dimension of something I thought I already knew. My time in residency had taught me to savor family time, and yes, I think I did realize that my finite time away was nothing compared to other folks' situations. But this year, Harry helped me acknowledge something else that I hadn't before--I needed that experience to grow. Those lonely times helped to shape who I am, and, to follow Harry's words, they made me a better woman.

I find it serendipitous that my sisters and I watched "The Wiz" on Christmas eve. The pinnacle of the movie comes when Glenda, the Good Witch of the East (a.k.a. Lena Horne) informs Dorothy (a.k.a. Diana Ross) that all along, the only thing she needed to be home was to believe and think of home. The movie closes after Diana Ross gives her unforgettable rendition of "Home." Enjoying the film with my sisters brought "home" so much for me. . . . yet that finale song was the piece de resistance. "Home." A song whose lyrics speak to every woeful intern, every newly relocated young adult, and every homesick soldier making sacrifices that will ultimately make them, and quite possibly, the world, a better place.

"And I've learned that we must look inside our hearts to find
a world full of love, like yours, like mine. . . . . like home. "

Home is indeed where the heart (and the family) is. Singing old songs with your siblings, snuggling with my mother-in-law on her couch in Ohio, and just having the kids nestled between us in our bed some mornings. . . . it isn't anything yet it is everything. I hope you were able to enjoy this holiday season at "home". . . .be it physically or just by clicking your heels three times to be there in your heart.

Peace, light and blessings in the year ahead.


~ K. M. aka "gradydoctor" :)

***

P.S. Yeah, yeah, I know. . . .a lot of folks criticized Miss Ross in the role of Dorothy, and also believe that nobody sings "Home" like the original Broadway darling, Stephanie Mills but please work with me on this, if not for anything but the sake of this blog entry! Definitely rent the flick one day if you've never seen it--it's really fun if you can put your 8 year old hat on for a minute. . . oh, and if you are a thirty or forty-something year old person of color, go ahead and watch it again for the twenty-trillionth time. :)



For kicks, also check out this version by an unknown teenage singer named Whitney Houston singing this song on the Merv Griffin show back in 1985. She sho' nuff buh-raaangs it, too! Say what you want about Whitney, that girl can SANG! Hey, if any of you find a clip of Diana singing it in "The Wiz" let me know!! Enjoy! :)



Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reflections from a Formerly-Single Girl at Grady: You had me at "Ohio"


Like the sweet morning dew
I took one look at you
And it was plain to see
You were my destiny . . . .

Cause we, we got the right foundation
And with love and determination
You're all, You're All I need to get by.

"You're All I Need to Get By"
written by Ashford and Simpson
(made famous by Marvin Gaye and more)

__________________________________________________________

I was just two months shy of my thirty-first birthday when I came to work at Grady. I had just finished up my chief residency in Cleveland, Ohio and was excited about starting a new life in Atlanta, Georgia. Although my five years in Cleveland were good to me professionally, my personal life there was pretty lackluster.

I had always imagined myself married with a kid or two by my early thirties. It was disappointing that I'd finally finished college, medical school, residency, and even a chief year, and had no one to ride off into the sunset of my "grown" life with. No boyfriend. No quasi-boyfriend. No nothing. I blamed it all on Cleveland.

When I started looking for jobs, I knew I wanted two things: to work in a county hospital, and to be in a city that nearly all people would find desirable. You see, the "nearly all" part is the key part of that phrase. While many folks think Cleveland is a pretty decent city, "nearly all" folks don't. Cities like Cleveland attract people who a.) have family there, b.) are from there or somewhere very close by, or c.) all of the above. When I finally had the chance to choose where I would go, I knew I wanted a thriving and diverse city--the kind that would draw people from all over. Heck, if I had to do the "grown" thing on my own, the least I could do is do it in a cool city. 'Hotlanta' fit the bill.

That July in 2001 I started working at Grady Hospital, and when I wasn't at work, I was really enjoying this "cool" city that I now called home. With my former college and medical school friends to hang out with, being a single thirty something was no longer the end of the world--especially in Atlanta. I was going new places, doing new things, and best of all, meeting new people who, in major contrast to my time in Cleveland, were NOT from Ohio.

After a little less than a year of adjusting to life in Atlanta, things were going pretty well. Work was great, Atlanta put me near family which was a wonderful bonus, and on the weekends, I actually had a social life. But part of me still longed for something more. . . . . .

One spring Friday, my best friend, Lisa D., called me on the way to work.

"Meet me at the Martini Bar in Midtown tonight. It should be fun."

I shrugged my shoulders and answered, "Sure, as long as I'm not too tired when I get off." She conveniently ignored that comment and squealed, "Cool! See you tonight!"

It was a long day that day. I saw patients in the Grady Urgent Care clinic all morning and afternoon, and just narrowly escaped in time to make a much needed appointment with my hairstylist for a haircut that evening. By the time she finished my hair, it was past 8pm and I was exhausted. Still in the clothes I'd worn to work that day, all I could think of was curling up on my couch with the remote control. (What I now acknowledge as a great perk of being single without children.) Suddenly, I remembered my conversation with Lisa early that morning. Shoot! I figured that she would surely let me off the hook. I decided to give her a quick ring to tell her I needed a rain check.

I pulled out my cell phone and noticed two missed calls and one voice mail--all from Lisa.

"Hey girl! I am on my way to the Martini Bar now. I probably won't hear you when you try to call me so don't bother. Just look for me on the outdoor patio. Oh, and don't even think about being lame and trying to renege on me 'cause I'm NOT having it. I'm in the mood for something social! See you in a minute! Bye!"

Dag! That's the problem with folks knowing you well--they can predict your next move before you even make it. Lisa had a long history with me trying to worm my way out of night time outings. But this time I really was tired. I called her on speed dial, ignoring her request. Straight to voicemail. Shoot! She knew just how to cut me off at the knees. I decided to leave her a message.

"Hey girl . . . . I am really tired and still have Grady all over me. . .I literally haven't even been home and it's going on 9 o'clock. Call me back." I snapped my flip phone shut and sat there for a moment thinking. (Yeah, this was before the iPhone and the texting revolution.) 

Sigh. Maybe I'll just start heading to the Martini Bar in good faith, and make a beeline for my house when she calls me back.

Before I knew it, I was pulling into a Midtown parking garage next to the Martini Bar. Still no call back from Lisa to let me off the hook. Ugggh. I was still in my same clothes that I'd worn to work, not to mention the tiny little pieces of haircut remnants prickling my neck. Double uggghh.

As I pulled closer, a pleasant youngish gentleman held up his right hand with his fingers spread apart. "Five dollar," he spoke methodically. Feverishly, I rummaged through my purse for a five dollar bill. Instead I found three one dollar bills and another dollar in change. Great.

"Look, sir. I only have 4 dollars. . . .but honestly, all I want to do is run into the place next door and tell my friend that I can't stay. I'm actually very tired. If you let me park, I promise to get the other dollar and bring it right back to you." He looked at me and smiled. He took the four dollars and waved his hand.

"You're good, my sister," I recall him saying, heavily accented by some sub-Saharan African native language. Whew.

As soon as I stepped out of the parking garage, I froze. A line of people hugged the wall beside the entrance to the restaurant snaking far back enough to disappear around the corner. "You've got to be kidding me!" I uttered aloud and began dragging my feet. I stood on the sidewalk near the front of the line and peered in from outside the roped area. You could hear the buzz of the people in line and those mingling on the patio. Would she really care if I just went on home? I stood on my tippy toes and squinted my eyes. I could see the side of Lisa's head. She was throwing it back in laughter, and didn't seem to be missing me at all.

I reached for my phone again to call her. Straight to voicemail once again. Shoot! I sighed hard and folded my arms. What to do now? I craned my neck down the street at the trail of swanky twenty-somethings patiently waiting in line and winced. Oh hells no! There is no way I'm getting in that 45 minute line all by myself. I might run into some residents or med students! My mind wandered to an awkward scenario of me and one of my interns edging forward in line together. Ugggh.

Suddenly, a baritone voice startled me. "What's wrong with you, ma?" A big, burly guy stood on the other side of the velvet rope, staring at me with a smirk on his face. The "ma" let me know immediately that, like many people I encountered in Atlanta, he wasn't from here. Definitely a Yankee, literally. Somewhere between buff and fluffy, this guy was definitely no Mr. Universe-- but he certainly wasn't someone you'd want to pick a fight with (especially with the NY vibe he was giving off.) He was supposed to be checking IDs and keeping the peace, but apparently he still had time to notice the perplexed look on my face.

"Excuse me?" I asked wondering his motive for talking to me. I wasn't in the mood for a chatty bouncer. As a matter of fact I wasn't in the mood for much of anything.

"Why you look so mean out here, ma?" he persisted with the New York pronunciation of 'here.' He squinted his eyes at a baby-faced gentleman's driver license. He waved the guy in, who looked a little too relieved to be legit. I decided to bite.

"Okay, so the truth is . . .you see that girl right there?" I pointed to Lisa's cheerful silhouette. "Well she's my friend and I keep trying to call her but she's not answering."

He laughed and shook his head. "I'm sayin, ma, why you calling her? Why not just go in?"

I raised my eyebrows and shook my head. With my arms folded, I lifted one elbow in the direction of the line. "One, I ain't waiting in that line. And two, seriously, I'd be happy to go on home. I just wanted to tell her so she wouldn't be looking for me."

He chuckled at me again. He gave the young woman in front of him an 'Is this you' look while scanning her ID. "What, ma, you too cool for the line?" Mr. New York Buffy slash Fluffy asked me as he let a few more folks in. He glanced back in my direction waiting for my reply.

"No. . .not too cool. . . .I'm just a grown ass woman, and there is no way I'm standing in a line as long as a Six Flags ride queue to go into a bar. I'm just sayin'."

He gave a half smile and shook his head again. This time he reached for the hook connecting the velvet rope to the pole. "Alright then grown ass woman," he said and gestured to me, "I can't have you standing out here huffing and puffing all night long. Do you, ma."

Wow. Nice for no reason. Thanks,man.

After skipping that heinous line, I headed a few feet up, where another gentleman stood at a podium in front of yet another velvet rope. I looked down at the front of the podium where a poster read 'LIVE MUSIC. $5 COVER.'

I smacked my face with my palm. Are you KIDDING me?! I anxiously began rummaging through my purse for the cash that I knew was not there. I patted my pockets, opened and closed my wallet--all the moves folks do when they know they don't have any money. I took a breath and explained to the podium dude as fast as I could:

"Okay, look. I have no cash, just a debit card. I used what I did have to park, and honestly, I really just want to walk over to that girl right there--" I pointed to Lisa who still didn't seem to be missing me--"and tell her that I am heading home. That's it. I promise I will come right back." I was super frustrated, and I'm sure it showed.

Before he could answer, a vaguely familiar looking guy walked up. "Hey there Kim!" he announced musically. He placed his hand on the podium-dude's shoulder. "Hey man, that's my friend--she's good. 

Wait HUH? Me? I'M good? Uhhhh, okay.

Turns out this guy briefly dated my college roommate and remembered me. I have no idea how he even knew my name. The best part? I never saw him any more after that. It was just a random act of kindness without strings attached. He smiled, told me to have a good time , and disappeared into the crowd--for good. And with his seal of approval, podium-dude unclicked the velvet rope indicating that I was indeed good. Cashless, yet good.

So finally, I made it through the throngs of people to Lisa. (Who still didn't seem to be missing me, by the way.) I did my best to primp a bit; still in my work clothes trying pitifully to look otherwise. The wrinkled denim jacket that I grabbed off of the back seat of my car at the last minute before entering was my only shot at looking cool. If this were a pass/fail exam for coolness, I'm pretty sure I would have flunked.

"Hey sister! There you are!" Lisa gave me a quick hug and pulled out a chair that she'd obviously been guarding all night. (The steely glares of the women standing around in painfully high stilettos told me so.) Without saying a word, I plopped down at the table and caught my breath. I felt like I had crossed the river Jordan, and I knew if I said anything, it would be a complaint. Lisa was having far too good a time to have to be subjected to my whining. I looked down at my clothes and shuddered. Ugghh! Now, more than ever, I hoped that I didn't see any residents imbibing out on this patio--especially wearing the same chinos and button down I'd had on in clinic. 

Ick.

Out of no where, I felt a soft tap on my shoulder--more of a gentle touch than an annoying tap.

"Excuse me, lady," a silky male voice said. It was so crowded that I could barely tell who it belonged to. I glanced down and saw a pair of neatly shined brown loafers attached to a pair of trendy, but not overly trendy, jeans. I followed them up to a find a crisply starched white shirt sharply contrasting the cocoa complexion of the smiling man who stood behind me. I didn't know him, and assumed he had mistaken me for someone else. Surely he wasn't interested in a girl with a Gap jean jacket and work clothes on.

"Hey there, lady, I'm sorry to bother you. . . . . .I saw you when you were standing outside on the sidewalk, and I really hoped you'd come in." Huh? After getting a good look at him, I realized that not only was he a snappy dresser, he was actually attractive, too. Clearly he hadn't seen my entire outfit.

Is he wearing beer goggles? Afterall, this is the 'Martini Bar'.

He went on. "I lost you at some point, and then I was so happy when I looked down and there you were, right in front of me at this table." He smiled again. I liked his smile. Then he added for emphasis. "I think you're beautiful."

Huh? Is is high?

"Uuuuhh . . . .thank you?" I responded, "I'm really flattered you think that considering I haven't even been home after work. Actually, I feel pretty bummy."

"Naaaahhh, lady. I noticed you the minute you walked up, and I thought, 'Now she is beautiful.'" His transparency was refreshing, and I kind of dug the way he said 'lady.' Instinctively, I felt safe with him. . . in a way that I'd never really felt when first meeting someone. I extended my hand.

"My name is Kimberly."

"Nice to meet you, Kimberly. My name is Harry," he replied with the same warm smile.

Harry?
His name is Harry? That's weird. I wonder if HE'S weird. Hmmm.

I remembered the quick and dirty rule a friend's mom once gave me for romantic first impressions--"You can tell a lot about a man by his shoes, his haircut/facial hair, and, if you're still in doubt, his watch." (Interestingly, the same goes for women except the replace watch with fingernails--but I digress.) I looked him over once again. . . . his smooth shaved head, his neatly trimmed goatee, and his meticulous appearance including a shiny watch.  

A+ so far. . .but a brother named Harry? That's odd.

My thoughts trampled over my lips and came spilling out. "Harry? Your name is Harry? As in 'Harry Potter?'"

He seemed amused. "Yep, like Harry Potter."

"Wait, like as in 'When Harry met Sally?'" I obnoxiously went on. Clearly unfazed, he nodded again. I liked this Harry so far. Just as I had never met a black man named Harry, something told me that I never met any man like Harry.

"Wow. Harry. So, Harry, where are you from?"

"I'm from Cleveland, Ohio," he answered matter-of-factly. Shut up! I thought I heard wrong. Surely this cool guy with big city style and an A+ on the shoe/groom/watch rule was not from Cleveland! I pegged him as more of a Philly or D.C. native. Definitely not from Cleveland. I gave him the once over once more, making sure I hadn't missed a deal breaker like gym socks with dress shoes or clear "dude" nail polish. I cocked my head and stared at him incredulously. "Cleveland? You have GOT to be kidding me."

"What, you know something about Cleveland?" he quipped. I caught his scent when he knelt down beside me at the table. He smelled nice. . . .like soap and cologne. . . .subtle and not overbearing. . .just like him.

"Do I? I just moved here from Cleveland, Ohio after living there for five years!" I could feel myself loosening up. I wanted to talk to this Harry guy more. I wanted to smell his gentlemanly scent and hear him say 'lady' a few more times. I looked around for a chair, but before I could, he stood up, pulled a card from his wallet and wrote his number on the back.


"Listen, lady. . . .I see you just got here. . . .and look, I don't want to hover over you and hog your time all night. Please. . . . . call me." He handed the card to me. "I would love to take you out this weekend or any day soon." And with that, he walked over to the other side of the patio, calm and confident. Wow.

A few moments later, he sent the waiter over to take drink orders from the four women sitting at the table with me--affirming that he was not only dapper, but also not cheap to boot. (Also a contrast to my experience in Cleveland.)

Confession: I used that card to make the first call that very night. I took out my cell phone 5 minutes after I met him and called right there in the Martini Bar to make the date. I wasn't going to let Harry from Ohio get away.

After our first date (which was the following day!), I called my parents and told them, "I have met my husband." We went out every day for two straight weeks. If there is a such thing as "knowing from the start," I'd say this is about as close as it gets.

Yeah, so that's the story of "When Harry met Kimberly." It kind of reminds me of that movie 'Sliding Doors'. What if Lisa's phone hadn't gone straight to voicemail, and what if all those strangers hadn't been so nice to me? Sometimes I wish I could find them all--the parking lot guy who loaned me the dollar and called me his "sister", Mr. New York Buffy slash Fluffy who called me "ma" and let me enter the front of the 45 minute line, and of course, my roommate's random ex who somehow deemed me "good." If I could, I'd thank them all for their small part in aligning the planets to make my dream come true. I still imagine how different it would have been if I had just headed home to my couch that night. . . .but alas, I did not. And, so they say, the rest is history.

***

Okay, so I bet you are thinking, that's nice, but why the whole Harry saga today? Today happens to be Harry's birthday. . . . .yes. . . .and Harry also happens to be one of my favorite subjects (next to my kids and Grady.) He's the best person I know, and is a shining example to thirty-something girls everywhere that nice guys do exist--and contrary to what some might think, they not only want to hold your hand, but have your hand as well.

Is it cheesy to say on Harry's birthday that I'm just wild about Harry? Probably. But I don't care. Harry is a prince of a man, a gem of a human being, a loyal friend, an exceptional father, a responsible husband and just an all around awesome guy. I have never felt safer with a man who wasn't my father, and find myself staring at him often, wondering how I managed to score such a fine man that wasn't already taken. Yes, I'm wild about Harry, but the best part is . . .Harry's also wild about me. And it shows. In the way he listens to me, the way he helps me, the way he respects me, and the way he loves me. His love is a verb every single day.


Happy Birthday, Harry. Seven years, two kids and countless memories later, I am still the luckiest girl in the world. I love the flowers and please, keep sweet gestures coming . . . .but know this -- surely, my love, you had me at "Ohio." :)

________________________________________________________


Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . 



Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Grady Seinfeld Moment: Signs o' the Times


Y'all really think I make this stuff up, but I don't!

Okay, the Grady Seinfeld Moment I had today (and know that I indeed have at least one per day) occurred just a few minutes before I left work. I had put on my coat, locked my office door and gathered all of my belongings. After stopping to talk to a few friends/colleagues in the hallway, I excused myself for a moment to slip into the ladies restroom in our Faculty Office Building (FOB). One minute later, I burst through the door and announced,

"The signage in the ladies bathroom has gotten COMPLETELY out of control!"

First came a five second pause as everyone grabbed the mental picture of the bathroom stalls, plastered with Xerox copies like a bulletin board on a college campus. Next came our hysterical laughter ringing down the halls. We knew all too well about the signs that scold, admonish, and accost any woman innocently trying to relieve herself in the FOB (which, for hardworking women who drink far too many Diet Cokes and have had a baby or two, is quite often.) Seriously, the signage has indeed taken on a life of its own.

Disclaimer: Don't get it confused! I don't want a single one of the "Big Brother--wait Sister" signs removed! I love being amused at work. It gives me a wonderful break from all that is heavy about being a Grady clinician educator. These are the kinds of things that make me stop what I'm doing during the day, look around me, and then throw my head back in laughter. And yes, this is yet another example of why I just love coming to work at Grady every single day! :)

***

Gotta go? Gotta go?
Well when you go, there will be plenty to read!
This is all that you will encounter upon entering our ladies room. . . . .

***

It starts out nice enough. . . . .

(*Note the friendly, unassuming redhead with the creepy large hand showing us just how to be more green in the potty. . . followed by a sweet "thank you". . .)


. . . .and then gets a little more suggestive. . . .
(Sorry this one is blurry! It actually says:

"PLEASE SANITIZE!

BECAUSE YOU WANT TO SREAD YOUR LOVE
NOT YOUR GERMS!"

(*Note the hands being washed. . . .innocent enough, right?)

. . . .from there some not-so-subtle suggestions are then made to those who don't seem to understand how modern plumbing works. . . . . .

(*Note the "thank you" from "The Management". . .)

. . . then comes a more concrete approach with an undercurrent of slight aggression . . . . . .

(*Note the all CAPS, the underlines, but no exclamation points at first. . . .but then a few added on to the "please". . . .)


. . . .and then it gets downright indignant! LOL!

(*Note the red font, all CAPS, too many exclamation points to count, and even a water proof shield in case the clogged toilet spews raw sewage all over the stall and hence the signage. . . . .)




And the answer is YES. YES, all of these signs were in ONE ladies restroom. The very one I entered today--true story, man. (Ask Stacy H. and Maura G.--they were there!)

I wouldn't change a thing, either. Sigh! I love this place!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Seinfeld Moment: The Statute of Limitations

Entrance to the Emory Faculty Office Building at Grady
________________________________________________________

"Hey there, Dr. Mannings! You doing alright?"


I looked at the glistening eyes of the middle-aged man standing in front of me. His smile was wide and genuine, and his face familiar. In fact, quite familiar considering he was the daytime security officer in our faculty office building across from the hospital. His neatly pressed uniform was decorated with gold star pins; shining as brightly as his consistently cheery disposition.

"Yes, sir," I replied, doing my best to show as much enthusiasm as he. "If I were any better it'd take two of me!" Figured I'd add one of my Dad's favorite sayings for emphasis.

"How them rowdy boys of yours?" he asked with one eyebrow raised. I was impressed that he remembered. But the truth is, he always remembered. He let out a hearty chuckle. "Boys is a whole 'nother breed, Dr. Mannings, a whole 'nother breed!"

I shared a laugh with him followed by a quick anecdote about the kids. I waved and stepped onto the elevator as he settled back down in a chair beside the front desk. What a pleasant guy.

Confession:

Okay, here is the thing. This security officer started working in our building a little less than a year ago. Shortly after he started, I introduced myself to him during a warm and friendly early morning encounter. During that chat, he asked about my specialty, and even asked about my children after I made reference to them in the conversation. Delightfully engaged and simply "nice for no reason" --without the slightest trace of being fresh. I recall thinking, "This guy must greet folks in his church or something. . . .he has a knack for people," and then -- totally out of my character -- I didn't register his name in my memory. So several months and pleasantries later, I admittedly cannot, for the life of me, remember his name. It's horrible, especially considering how much I take pride in knowing peoples' names. What's worse is that he not only remembers my name (give or take an extra consonant) he uses my name every chance he gets.

I know, I know. You are probably wondering. . . .Why not just ASK the dude his name? Or better yet, why not just peep out his badge on the sly? Let's be clear here--I am no coward. There's usually no shame in my game when it comes to just biting the bullet and asking. Most times, it goes a little like this:

"Please forgive me! I am so embarrassed to ask you this, but somehow your name has completely escaped me!"

I started doing this after my prior version backfired. I used to say, "How do you pronounce your name again?" The day that someone said "Kate" I knew that dog wouldn't hunt anymore. At the start of 2009, I promised that I'd just start asking. No more pretending I knew someone's name, or worse doing the ultra-obvious move where you try to have the person whose name you don't know introduce themselves to one of your friends. For the most part, my "do ask, do tell" policy has worked quite well--that is, with the exception of Mr. Happy in the Emory Faculty Office Building.

Here's the problem. I think there's definitely a statute of limitations on requesting a name. It isn't like getting, say, a birth certificate late. . . .you know, where even if your child is potty-trained it's fine to roll in there with a straight face and a $10 money order like, "What?"

With someone's name, you have a window of about 3 - 6 months--with one caveat. Rate of window closure is also directly proportional to the number of times the anonymous party utters your name. Yeah, so with every "Dr. Mannings" that Mr. Happy said to me, the window has inched down a little more. 9 months, and five thousand "Dr. Mannings" later, it's not only shut, but painted shut.

Every interaction that I have with him now is like a Seinfeld episode. I find myself constantly plotting to figure out his name. I scan his uniform, trying to inconspicuously catch his name on his nametag, but seriously, it is always, and I do mean always, flipped over or partially covered when I see him. I wait to see if someone else will greet him saying, "Hey there, Mr. Insert Real Name!" --but they all seem to stick with generic salutations like "What's going on, boss-man!" I even ask colleagues, friends, random folks in the building. The bad part is that after all this time, none of them seem to know his name either. It's terrible. (But kind of funny, too.) Case in point, real conversation I had today:

"Do you know that really, really pleasant security officer's name that sits in the FOB during the day?"


"Oh, he is so nice, isn't he? That guy is always in a good mood!"


"Yeah, but what's his name?"


"I think it's 'Tony.'"


"No, that's the evening officer with the salt and pepper hair."


"Oh yeah."


"You don't know his name?"


"It's not Tony?"


"Did he tell you that?"


"No, for some reason I just keep thinking 'Tony.'"


"Okay, well it's not Tony."

"That sucks, since I think I called him 'Tony' this morning."


So then I'm back at square one. I've become semi-obsessed with determining his name. I figured I'd try enlisting some help. Matilda. I'll just ask Matilda! Matilda, the receptionist that greets visitors in our building during the day would surely know, considering she is right there with him all day. As it turns out, that's poses a problem. She's always right there with him.

Earlier today, I thought it was my big chance. I caught her sorting through some papers at the front desk, and, a ha! He was no where to be found! I walked briskly down the hall toward Matilda, cutting my eyes from side to side to make sure no one heard me.

"Hey Matilda!" I greeted her cheerfully. I looked around again and then lowered my voice. "You mind if I ask you a silly question?"

"Oh, good morning, Dr. Manning. Sure, what is it?" She lay the papers down in front of her and smiled.

"That gentleman. . . . .you know, the one that--"

I was interrupted by a booming, musical voice from beneath her desk. "You just had the wrong cord connected back here, Matilda! Should work fine now!" Mr. Happy stood up, brushed the dust off his uniform pants and then rubbed his hands quickly to remove any other debris from the floor. You've got to be kidding me! Matilda looked over her shoulder and said, "Great! I knew it was likely something easy." She then turned her attention back to me. "Sorry, Dr. Manning. What were you saying?"

I couldn't hide my amusement with the irony. I am so going to blog about this. "Um, nothing." I internally giggled as Mr. Happy gave me a playful salute.

"Dr. Mannings! What you know good?" he announced while placing his hands on his empty holster. Window closing tighter.

"I'm well, and you sir?" Sir. So obvious that I don't know your name. What a loser. Just ask him, Mannings. What's the big deal?

Then came the pleasantries. "Dr. Mannings, did you hook up the meal on Thanksgiving? I know you can burn in the kitchen can't you? With all them boys in your house, you better have some cooking skills!" He released that same throaty laugh. "And don't tell me you don't cook, Dr. Mannings!"

Dag! There it is again. How can you ask someone's name when they keep saying yours? It's just too awkward. Maybe I could say, It's Man-ning not Man-nings. Then I could do the, "Pronounce your name" trick. But then what if his last name is, like, Jones or Hill? Told you that dog didn't hunt.

"Dr. Manning used to be Dr. Draper," Matilda said to Mr. Happy. "I knew her back when she was Dr. Draper." I smiled politely, and then opened my eyes wide. OMG! That's it, Matilda! This is my big moment! A name reference! A golden opportunity to get Mr. Happy's name once and for all!

"What's your wife's last name?" I asked Mr. Happy. I can't stand myself, I'm so smooth.

"Aawwww, ha ha ha. . .it seem like if you a doctor, you might want to keep your name as is," he responded, getting away from my wack attempt at getting his name.

"It was an honor for me to take my husband's name," I countered, "but it's definitely a personal decision for most folks." Ah hah! An idea. "If your daughter was a doctor, what would you want her to be called? Dr. . . . ." I'm so smooth, I really and truly cannot stand it. This is my big moment. . . wait for it. . .wait for it. . .

"Like you said, Dr. Mannings, it's real personal. I would just be proud she was a doctor, to be honest." Killing me. Softly.

"Alright then y'all," I said as I waved and walked away with a feeling of defeat. The painted shut window just got nailed shut, too.

True story:

I came upstairs later this afternoon and stepped over to my program coordinator Tanya's cubicle. Tanya could possibly one of the nicest people I know, next to Mr. Happy. I was feeling pretty positive that she, being all nice and such, would be the authority on other equally nice folks.

"Hey, Tanya, can I ask you a question?"

"Yep, what's up?" She gave me her same warm smile, eyes twinkling like Mr. Happy's. She is so going to know this.

"Do you know the name of that day time security officer downstairs in the FOB? Really pleasant, always smiling?" Please put me out of my misery, Tanya.

She slid her jacket on, grabbed the mouse to her computer and clicked 'Shut down.' Zipping up her coat she squinted her eyes and said,"Who Tony?" Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!

"Noooo, not Tony!" I exclaimed with way too much hyperactive emotion. Tanya looked at me sideways with an expression that said, 'Boo, you need a vacation.' I didn't care. I wanted, no I needed to know Mr. Happy's real name. "Tanya! Tony is the evening security officer with the salt and pepper hair. Not him! I'm talking about the guy that's always down there with Matilda. You know who I'm talking about, right?"

Tanya looked skyward and tapped her finger over her lips for a moment. "Hmmmm." I waited patiently while her wheels were turning. Sure, she was on her way home, but not too busy to help a sista out. She then stopped and shook her head. "I'm embarrassed to say I don't know. I know exactly who you are talking about, but I have to admit, I don't know his name." Great.

So today, alone, I have asked five people what his name was, and 4 of the 5 said, "Tony." The reason I know it isn't that is because on several of the days his badge was facing me, it was half obscured by his jacket. . . . . yet I could make out the first letter of his name, which was 'B.' Mr. B. Happy.

***

Okay, so you tell me--what are the rules on getting names? Is there a statute of limitations? I'm just saying. Has this ever happened to you? Who is your "Mr. Happy?"

I welcome your insight on how I can go about getting his name. Until then, I will just keep trying to catch him when his badge isn't flipped backward or continue my attempts to ambush Matilda . . . . . .and if she says "Tony" I don't know what I'll do!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reflections from the Clinic at Grady: The Vicious Cycle

The "deuce":
Sometimes the only thing that precedes the departure



_________________________________________________

"I don't wanna

I don't wanna
I don't wanna

I don't wanna

I don't wanna wait in vain. ."

Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain"


__________________________________________________________
"Can somebody please grab that?" I spoke out over the doctor room while gesturing to the blinking phone line. Four rings later, I reached over someone's half full Starbucks cup to greet the caller myself.
"This is the Green Pod!" I announced musically.
"Dr. Manning," said Mrs. J, our clinic receptionist, "I have a patient up here at the front desk that just got here for a 9:20. What do you want me to tell her?" It was one of the most everyday conversations one might overhear in the resident clinic.

I balanced the phone on my shoulder while writing on a prescription and scanned the clock hanging on the wall. 10:24 a.m. Before I could answer, Mrs. J. added, "She had to go to financial counseling first, and just made it back." Then she lowered her voice and said, "Girrrrl. She look like she 'bout to cry up here. Please let me check her in or otherwise it's 'bout to be drama."

The hard sell probably wasn't necessary. When I was new at this, I used to always walk up to the front desk to get the full rundown when a patient was late. Now I just ask a few simple questions. How late? Is this a recurring problem? Why is the person late? Oh yeah--and is the person an elder or disabled? That usually gives me more than enough ammunition to make a decision--and saves me a walk.

So as it turns out, this is a patient who is rarely late and happens to be well-established in our clinic. Patients who are seen regularly at Grady and who do not have commercial insurance (the majority of our patients) must go through a process called "financial counseling" which determines how much assistance they qualify to receive. Because employment and income situations are often dynamic, this "financial counseling" must be done at least every few months. This encounter results in the patient being issued a "Grady Card," which, if you don't pay close attention, will expire on you like that. (Insert fingersnap here.)

Okay, so this patient did arrive to the clinic on time, but neglected to account for the fact that her expired Grady Card would require some face time with financial counseling. I suppose one could argue that if she has been coming here for years that she should have known that her Grady Card might need an update. I wanted to just say "tough luck" but then I thought about her 9:20 appointment. I asked myself what the likelihood was that she would have actually been seen at 9:20 a.m. (I won't answer that.) So back to the patient. She's never late, keeps her appointments, and waits for us when we run behind? "Check her in," I told Mrs. J. and hung up the phone. Check in the patient for her 9:20 appointment at 10:30.

The Vicious Cycle

And so the vicious cycle begins. It starts with good intentions. First appointment is at 8AM, and the doctor comes out of the blocks galloping hard and fast. Or the doctor may start a few minutes late out of the blocks. . . . .either because they need to answer a few phonecalls or pages, review a chart or two, or maybe just because he or she can't seem to find a matching pair of socks for their child before getting them to school. The patient (interesting that this is what they are called now that I think about it) patiently, and sometimes not-so-patiently waits. Either way, the 8AM patient goes first, and perhaps the 8:30AM patient is seen at 8:37AM. The 8:30 AM patient just needs a medication refill and a blood pressure check. Blood pressure is high today, no big deal since the patient is out of medications. Patient is a "regular"--pretty straightforward--including small talk should take no more than 10 - 12 minutes. "Oh, by the way, doc, should I be worried about this little twinge I keep getting in my chest?" Damn. Patient smokes, has high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Anything in his chest is newsworthy, and yeah, should be worth worrying about. "It's just a twinge, kind of like a pressure, but not pain. It comes out of no where when I'm just sitting there." Pressure not pain, yeah, not good. Next comes an EKG, more discussion, and more time. 9AM patient is gracious when they are escorted back at 9:20AM. Whew. Maybe this one will help the doctor catch up. Or not. Two minutes into that visit, the nurse knocks on the door to hand the doctor the EKG of the 8:30AM patient. Very abnormal. Page Cardiology. Draw some labs. Excuses self from the room to arrange a plan with the cardiologist.

Doctor finally returns to the room. 9AM patient is still gracious, even though it is now 9:38AM. "Somebody having heart troubles is important, doctor. It's okay." Gracious patient is also, as it turns out, not eating, not sleeping well, can't concentrate. Starts crying during the encounter. "I'm sorry, doctor. I don't usually do this." Take full history to screen for depression, make the diagnosis. Teach patient about anti-depressants and make sure that this is not a situation where the patient is suicidal. It isn't, but the patient is still visibly upset. 10AM. Rushing her is the wrong thing to do. Finish up at 10:09.

9:20AM patient is annoyed that she is not called back until 10:10AM. Rightfully so. Rolls eyes and folds arms hard when walking toward the room. "This is some bullshit!" she huffs looking at her watch. It actually is. Doctor needs to say something conciliatory. "We are so sorry, ma'am." Patient not having it. "Yeah, y'all are sorry. Sorry as hell." Ouch. Guess the only thing that could be worse is putting her in the room at 9:20 and not actually coming in to see her until 10:10. She probably would have met the doctor with a flying kick the minute he or she opened the door. (I'm just saying, it could happen.)

It's a vicious cycle that I've seen spiral out of control at just about every outpatient clinical environment I've ever been in. Sure, some places are worse than others, and sure, some offices have so much staff and technology that they run only a little late. But no matter how fancy, shiny, high tech-y, concierge-y, or non-indigent care accepting-y they are, they too get off schedule a bit--more often than not. It's definitely not just a "Grady thing."

My dad and I talk about this often. He is no fan of the "vicious cycle," and even more, he absolutely does not appreciate the fact that the doctor often doesn't acknowledge their tardiness at all. In fact, it's nothing for my dad to wait fifteen minutes and then throw up the deuces to the receptionist. ("Deuces": two fingers symbolizing the "peace sign"; a slang gesture used either with a statement or just as a nonverbal cue to say you are leaving, usually abruptly.) Yeah, so Dad is not shy at all about the "deuces"--nor is he shy about letting them know, like that 9:20 patient, just what he thinks about being seen well after his appointed time. (Fortunately, my father's language has gotten less colorful than that of "9:20" as he's aged.)

Daddy's doctor: "Hey there, Mr. Draper! How you doing?"

Daddy: looking real annoyed--"Not good. My appointment was at 1PM and it is now 1:39PM."

Daddy's doctor: Half-genuine reply--"Sorry 'bout that, Mr. Draper. Blood pressure and labs look good today!"

Daddy: Deuces


Isaiah throwing up a "deuce"

Okay, so the late thing is one part of it. Dad's doctor was a half hour late, and Dad had stuff to do. So the doctor walks in and acts like he didn't just leave a grown a-- man with business to tend to waiting for thirty minutes. To me, that's the other big part of the problem. No profuse apology, no preemptive strike in the waiting room, no nothing. It's inconsiderate, and it's the perfect recipe for getting a few choice words from my father--followed by the "deuces".

In that doctor's defense, it is probably something he learned in residency and medical school--we are conditioned to think that the "vicious cycle" is par for the course, and that patients should just fall in line. Interestingly, they usually do. At least, most of the time. I suppose it's kind of like the "theory of learned helplessness." The rats thrown into water who profusely try to swim their way out, but eventually, with repeated failed efforts, just lie there the minute they hit the water. What's the use? Nothing will change. Learned helplessness. The rats stop swimming, the patients stop fighting, and they stop planning anything important after appointments with us--unless, of course, they can manage to be the first patient of the day.

My dad has made me think about this differently. I can't always control things running a bit behind, but I have made some modifications in an effort to be more considerate. As the lead physician, when I see things getting off schedule, I'll go into the waiting room and thank people for being so patient. If a resident physician is running late by quite a few minutes, I may ask another doctor to see their next patient sooner, or I will offer to see the patient myself. Sure, it's a "work around" and not always ideal for a patient that wants to see their own doctor, but it does respect the patient's time, which folks seem to appreciate. Most important though, is that I immediately identify the elephant in the room as soon as I see the patient.

"Good morning, Mrs. Moore. Listen, I'm so sorry that you had to wait to see us. I really appreciate your patience. Your time is just as precious as ours, and I don't like waiting either."

Sometimes that makes all the difference in the world. A simple, genuine acknowledgment. Before they even get the opportunity to tell me that "this is some bullshit," I do my best to beat them to the punch. (Sorry to use the expletive again--I tried it with the word censored or as "b.s.", but it just didn't have the same effect.) I also recognize that the same folks that have waited for us over and over again, sometimes have bad days, too. Like the lady at the front desk whose Grady Card expired--I felt we owed it to her to return the favor. At least this time.

Okay, so I know my dad is reading this, shaking his head and sighing audibly. I know, Dad. We could space the patients farther apart to allot more time, but then our availability would be significantly decreased. We could shut folks down when they start adding in their "by the way, doc's" alerting them of our "3 problem only" policy. That seventy year old guy who musters up the courage to tell his twenty-eight year old female doctor that he is having trouble "with his nature" and "maybe could we talk about them Viagras" had better get that out in the first five minutes or else there will be no waltzing around the kitchen for him. (Like all those happy folks on the erectile dysfunction medication commercials.) Again, Dad. It's a vicious cycle that's hard to break. How do we simultaneously connect with our patients and keep it moving? I still struggle with that every time I'm in clinic.

I have a few thoughts, but they definitely aren't perfect solutions. For starters, those of us who are clinician-educators can keep on teaching the residents to be more efficient--and our staff, too. Those in private practice can do the same with their staff, too, I guess. More efficient, yes, but never at the expense of that human connection. If it takes you an extra minute to tell me that your grandson was deployed to Iraq or that you just became a deacon at your church, I'm giving you that minute. Maybe I can multitask more, checking your pulse while you tell me about your son winning the spelling bee, and perhaps I can palpate your thyroid while you give me your recipe for the perfect sweet potato pie. This way, we indeed connect--and your wait for me is not in vain.


So, on behalf of empathic doctors everywhere, I apologize to every patient who has patiently and even impatiently sat in an uncomfortable chair reading outdated National Geographics or watching a channel that cannot be changed--all because of our "vicious cycle." Yes, your time is important. No, it is not cool that you are asked to reschedule for being twenty minutes late when we usually are. And even more, I am even more sorry for those who grimace and bear the delay only to be rushed once their late doctor finally arrives. Not cool. Besides, who wants to wait in vain? Not Bob Marley, not my dad and certainly not you, either.

So, yeah, I checked her in, and probably delayed things even more.

And yep, Dad, I'll say it before you can--this stinks. Or as the 9:20 AM patient put it so colorfully- this is some bullshit.



Monday, November 23, 2009

Reflections from a November: A Lasting Impression



Walt Disney World, a magical place

"C.J." , a magical child (and the hugest fan EVER of Walt Disney World) :)

_________________________________________________________________
Death is, unfortunately, a huge part of what I do every day. The doctor in me always wants to intellectualize it--dissecting every aspect of the clinical details--but the mother in me knows that sometimes I cannot. This is one of those times. This loss taught me to love harder and to celebrate little things much more. Having more love and more joy makes me a better doctor. . . .and makes me enjoy and better relate to people, especially my patients. The thing about mixing joy and love together is that you just can't help but pay some of it forward. . . .

This is a story about the lasting impressions of love and joy. . . .
________________________________________________________

November 28, 2008

It was pitch dark and raining the night we drove in to Fayetteville, North Carolina from Atlanta. The usual chattiness that Harry and I share on long car rides was replaced with a palpable reticence. I could hear every single drop of rain as it slammed against the windshield, the tires on the wet asphalt, and the rustling "mapquest" paper in my hand that lead us to our destination. Occasionally, we would look at each other and want to talk, but instead we rode in silence. This was not a trip we wanted to make.

Just four days before, we had received the awful news that our dear friends had lost their beloved three year old son. Perfectly healthy. Absolutely beautiful. Wonderfully precocious and bright. Undoubtedly cherished. An overwhelming bacterial infection invaded his bloodstream, quickly spreading through his little body and ultimately taking his life in less than twenty four hours. It was unimaginable. Something you gasp about on the evening news, but not attach to someone you know or love. Someone you find yourself praying for without a face or a relationship. . . .but this time, it wasn't a stranger flashing across the screen, it was very real and close to home. On November 23, 2008, just one month and one day shy to the day of his 4th birthday, God decided He needed another little angel. His name was C.J.

C.J. (Cedric Jr.) was born on December 24, 2004 to our friends Cedric and Davina C. Cedric, or "Ced" as we all call him, was Harry's roommate during his Army days and was also a groomsman in our wedding. Davina, his wife, surely proves the rule of "six degrees of separation." Coincidentally, she and my best friend Lisa D. pledged AKA sorority at Hampton University together almost twenty years ago. The two "linesisters," who happen to be members of the sorority that rivaled my own in college, poked fun at my Delta sorority sisters and me over our wedding weekend. That was a fun weekend, our wedding weekend. And as it turns out, C.J. was a part of the fun, too. He was a special secret growing in Davina's womb that she and Ced would soon learn of upon their return home.

"I don't know what to say, baby," I murmured to Harry as we approached their home. I stared out the window as the freezing rain pelted the car. I could feel myself beginning to panic. Usually wise Harry had no poignant advice this time. He just looked at me and shook his head. "I don't either, babe," he uttered quietly.

I closed my eyes and started to silently pray. I asked God to please comfort the family. I asked Him to ultimately give all who knew and loved C.J. peace. I asked Him for mercy on them and the rest of the family . . . . . and all other parents. I asked for favor in Ced and Davina's lives going forward, and that God somehow reveal to us all what He wanted us to learn. Then, I selfishly asked God to please put words in my mouth that would somehow help and not hurt. In fact, I begged Him to.

We stepped into the threshold of their home and out of the relentless rain. The room was surprisingly light when we arrived. The love in the room wrapped anyone who entered it like a warm blanket. It was morose. . .yet celebratory. Ced's parents, the ultimate matriarch and patriarch, stood vigil in the foyer greeting visitors. Mrs. C, Ced's mom, reached out and hugged me. I managed to utter a few scratchy words. "I'm so sorry." I could feel her nodding her head.

"It's like a bad nightmare," Mrs. C replied while taking our coats. I wanted to cling to Harry, as a child does to a mother's leg, trying my best to disappear behind him as we made our way into the living room. Ced immediately stood when he saw Harry--always the poised military man. There was such a raw innocence about him at that moment. . . . his eyes so quiet and tired. He walked briskly to Harry, and they both dropped their stoic guards and embraced tightly. "I'm hurting, man," I overheard Ced say, his voice muffled into Harry's shoulder. As Mr. and Mrs. C stood by, it dawned on me that they had not only lost a grandchild, but also had to watch their manchild cry. You could see how badly they wanted to take the pain away from their child. . . .take the pain for their child. . . .I shook my head and started quietly praying again. Pleading with God. . . please God. . . .please. . . . .

Glancing around the room, my eyes finally rested on the kitchen table. Four women sat at the around it talking and laughing softly. Three of them were Davina's close sisterfriends, fiercely loyal and lovingly flanking her, and directly across from where I stood sat Davina. She looked her same beautiful self, but her grief stricken eyes told it all. I willed myself not to cry. Please don't. Don't. Then I made the mistake of scanning the rest of the kitchen. C.J.'s Thanksgiving artwork was proudly displayed on the refrigerator and his "kiddie table" still held his Lightning McQueen placemat. Why Lord? Why? I lost the fight not to cry right then. I quickly tried to regain my composure. Please Lord. Please. Give me a word. Just give me a word. Something. Anything. Not just "sorry". She knows I'm sorry. Davina slid back from the table and came toward me. Please God. Please. Anything. Something.

"Hey chica," she said hoarsely with a halfhearted smile. We hugged for a few moments in silence, sharing so much. Mothers of pre-school aged sons. Believers in God, desperately wanting to accept His will on something so unconscionable. Both of us knowing that there is nothing natural about a mother burying her child. No words to smooth it over, no real gesture to make it better, nothing. "It's as awful as you could imagine it to be," she once said to me. "Everything about it, girl." During that embrace, it came to me that although we had both been pregnant together (Isaiah was born six months after C.J.), and although our husbands were the best of friends, schedules, work, and life never allowed Harry and me the chance to actually meet C.J. in person. Right then, after that realization, God gave me something to say.

"Introduce me to your son," I spoke softly while holding her two hands. "Please. Introduce me to your son."

And that is exactly what she did. We locked arms and walked over to a shelf that held several family pictures, and of course, even more shots of photogenic C.J. at every stage. Davina picked up an 8 x 10 of C.J. wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. She smiled as she rubbed her index finger over his lips. "This is one of my favorite pictures." She gently kissed the glass covering his angelic face. Then, she shared with me stories of his experiences of going to Disneyworld "many times" before he was even four. The funny things he did, the parts that scared him, and how he liked to ride on his daddy's shoulders as they walked around the park.

We sat side by side on her couch and Davina took me on a photographic journey with C.J. to parks, museums, vacations, trick-or-treating, and even the most every day places of all. Unlike many of moms who promise that we will put those pictures in albums some day, Davina is one of those moms who actually did. One picture was taken in a restaurant, C.J. smiling brightly next to his mother. "What were y'all doing here?" I asked Davina--knowing that there was a good story behind it.

"Girl, we were at C.J.'s favorite restaurant, Outback Steakhouse. Most kids want chicken fingers, but this boy orders like a thirty-five year old man!" We both laughed. "We were there for me and Ced's anniversary. C.J. was my 'hot date' since Ced was deployed at the time."

I turned the page and saw several consecutive pictures of C.J. wrestling on the floor with his paternal grandfather, who he lovingly called "March." (They loved to be silly and march around the house together--hence the name, which according to Davina, really stuck.) Riding on "March's" back like a horse, playfully laughing on the floor with his uncles and cousins. . . .then I saw another photo of Ced lying in bed reading a book with C.J. perched right beside him, mimicking his every mannerism. I peeled back the next page, gasped, and looked over at Davina. Then, I threw my head back and laughed at the sight of Ced standing beside his spotless Harley Davidson, and with his "mini-me" C.J. right next to him -- and beside his own miniature "hog." "Girl, you couldn't tell C.J. nothing about his Harley!" Davina added, eyes sparkling. What a delight. She reached for a stack of black and white photos that were spread before us on the coffee table. "This is from the last time Ced returned from Iraq," she said sighing. The first one I saw was a great snapshot of C.J. in his daddy's arms, Ced fully clad in Army fatigues. There were other photos of the entire family of three, reunited and smiling. . . .Davina proudly wearing a t-shirt that read "I love my hubby." And finally, a photo of Davina holding C.J. with her back to the camera looking to the horizon. If you looked closely, you could make out a faint silhouette of Ced and the other soldiers who'd just stepped off the plane in the background. There was C.J. with his arms wrapped snugly around her neck, and with a tiny American flag in his tightly clenched hand, staring into the camera hauntingly. . .his young face was so serious and peaceful--and his eyes--almost knowing.

I was introduced to C.J. that day, and also learned from Davina during that introduction how to truly celebrate the ones we love. Her pictorial biography of C.J. was a glorious carpet ride of life through a child's precious eyes. Laughter. Imagination. Innocence. It is the best introduction I have ever had--with the most lasting impression.

Our hearts connected that weekend as more than just wives of old Army buddies. We forged a friendship of our own, growing sometimes over simple text messages, and other times over laugh out loud phone conversations, but in its every form special, easy, and authentic. The fear of talking with her about her son, and especially my own sons, melted away that day and never returned.

"Please don't let anyone forget my son."

A few years ago, one of our college friends, David S., passed away after a sudden cardiac arrest. A loving husband, a cherished father of three, and a beloved son also swiftly taken away from his loved ones. At his funeral, his grieving mother embraced my older brother, Will, and implored him-- "Please, don't let anyone forget my son." Will was a close friend of Dave's, yet all who knew him would tell you that he was adored by countless people. For that reason, I found it especially moving that his mother trusted Will with those words that day. . . and that charge. And by telling me what she said, he honored her request. Part of me believes that the Lord spoke to her that day, too. . . .and through those words she shared with Will, ultimately spoke to me as well.

I vowed to regularly remember Dave S. that day, and to do my small part not to let others forget him, either. In that same spirit, I also vowed to remember little C.J., and to be unafraid to talk about him, share about him, and to bring him to life just has his mother did for me on that dark and rainy November night. Even if it hurts a little.

"Tell me a story, Mommy."

This is a common request from my kids, especially Isaiah, (most often a thinly veiled effort to delay bedtime after being tucked in.) Usually, I'll tell him one of Davina's "C.J. adventures." I try to get every detail right, doing my best to honor his memory. I even placed a picture of him in the boys' playroom, and told them he was our "playroom angel."

"Is he a kid angel?" Isaiah asked one day.
"Yep. He's a kid angel," I answered.
"Why are some angels grown up angels and other angels kid angels?" Ut oh.
I swallowed hard and give my best reply. "If God takes you as a child, you are a kid angel."
He looked puzzled. "But why would God take a kid?" he asked with wide eyes. He really wanted to know. So did I.
"I don't know, baby. It's a lot of stuff God does that we don't fully understand. But you can ask Him when you pray tonight."
He looked down quietly. "Was his mommy sad when God took him?"
"Yes, baby. His mommy and his daddy were very sad and a lot of times they still are. But they are happy God gave C.J. to them for a little while, even. And now they have there very own angel and so do we."
"Oh," he responded, not completely comforted. Later on that evening, Isaiah told me he thought it was a good idea for C.J. to be our playroom angel, "'cause there are lots of toys in that room, and I bet kid angels like toys."

One day, I came in the playroom, and Isaiah had taken down the framed photo of C.J. "What are you doing with that?" I asked him.
"Oh, just playing with my angel," he replied with a smile. "We were going to watch the Care Bears Movie, and I thought C.J. could see better if I took him off the shelf." I could feel my eyes welling up.
"Actually, angels can fly, so he could see without you moving him," I said matter-of-factly.
"I know angels can fly," he quipped, "but I wanted to see him better." Of course.

Isaiah, C.J., and the Care Bears that day (courtesy of my iPhone)
***

"Please don't let anyone forget my son." This was one mother's plea, and is every mother's wish. We don't passively remember. It has to be deliberate. . . . .kind of like love. So today, I am remembering C.J.. . . . . I am running through toy store aisles with him, marching with high steps around the house with him, giggling out loud on carpeted floors with him, and sometimes crying, too. I am describing him to friends-- to you--and to my children. . . .promising to make his memory a living one and paying a little of that love mixed with joy forward, just like he did.


Dear C.J.,

Thank you for teaching me so much about love and joy. Thank you for your spirit and for continuing to be our special angel in so many ways. I am so honored that I finally had the chance to meet you. I look forward to continuing to introduce you to others, and to teach them what you and your mommy have taught me. You have both taught me how to make love a verb. . .active and always evolving.

It has been a year since you made your transition, but I promise to keep you fresh i
n my heart and my thoughts every day. . . .and to never let anyone forget you. Ever.

Love,

One of the many people who love you


Marion Cedric "C.J." Carrington, Jr.
a.k.a. "Heaven's Angel"
12/24/2004 - 11/23/2008