Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Like a new life.

See I was wasted 
and I was wasting time 
'Till I thought about your problems
I thought about your crimes 

Then I stood up, and then I screamed aloud 
I don't wanna be part of your problems 
Don't wanna be part of your crowd, no 

'Cause I've got a hand for you 
I've got a hand for you 
'Cause I wanna run with you 
Ah, won't you let me run with you? 

Hold my hand 
Want you to hold my hand 
Hold my hand 
I'll take you to the promised land 
Hold my hand 

Maybe we can't change the world but 
I wanna love you the best that
the best that I can

~ from Hootie and the Blowfish "Hold My Hand"


I reached my hand toward yours the minute I entered the room. Just like the elegant elder that you are, you laid your delicate hand into my own. Each of your nails was painted a deep shade of red. And just like that manicure, your ruby lips complimented your caramel complexion perfectly.

"Good morning, Mrs. Maxwell. I'm Dr. Manning and I'm working with your resident doctor today."

"It is very nice to meet you, Dr. Manning."  You shook my hand; your grip was more firm than I expected.

Sure. Deliberate. Tough.

Something about that handshake made me curious about your story. Even more so than my usual curiosity.

This is what you looked like on the outside: An exquisite matriarch with coiffed hair (that you quickly admitted was "one of many" hairdos in your closet) and well-coordinated, well-starched clothing. Your legs were crossed at the ankles and your hands were stacked one upon the other in your lap. All of it so dainty. Quite the opposite of that handshake.

I wondered about that. About you.

Who were you? Were you a grandmother of ten and a great-grandmother of fifteen? Were all of your own now "grown"and were they all somewhere plotting a big fiftieth wedding anniversary for their father and you?

Maybe you were a deaconess in your church, sitting with those same crossed legs and stacked hands on hard pews. Perhaps it was you that cut your eyes at teenagers chewing bubble gum in the choir stand or better yet who walked right up to them with an open palm and a full expectation for them to spit it right out. I could see that.

And what about your cooking? Were you the queen of sour cream pound cake or the belle of all things barbecue? Was your kitchen table the one where family of all ages sat around and learned those very important things like picking the best collard green leaves and shelling black eyed peas? Did your kitchen sink have two milk crates in front of it for tween-agers to stand upon while elbow deep in dishwashing suds? I could see that, too.

But then there was your handshake. No, it wasn't one of unnecessary roughness but what seemed to be necessary toughness. More than just the regular tough of growing up black and female under the thumb of Jim Crow laws and intense segregation. This was that kind of tough that you can see and hear and feel if you just pay attention. You seemed to be an overcomer of some sort; this is what I was thinking. And all of this I thought about with just that one handshake.

Sure. Deliberate. Tough.

I repeated parts of your history of present illness and also examined you. Just as the resident had described, there was not much to report in the exam. You took my hand as I helped you down from the examining table and there it was again--that handshake.

Sure. Deliberate. Tough.

What was that? Where did it come from?

"You have a great handshake. It's so confident."

That observation seemed to make you smile. "Yeah. My Daddy always told me that your handshake tell a lot about you."

I thought about that for a moment. "You know what your handshake tells me? It tells me that you must be strong."

"You know? I'm stronger than you'd even believe."

That felt like you were giving me an invitation.  And I was hungry for your story so I readily accepted. Where to start? I pressed my lips together to force a pause before speaking. Then I bit. "Stronger than I'd even believe? Tell me about that."

Yes. That's what I said. But just like that hand shake you were deliberate in your answer.

"Which? The truth or something that will fit what most people see when they see me?"

That kind of shook me up. I held your gaze and drew from your necessary toughness. "I guess I'm interested in hearing your truth. That is, if you want to share it."

My resident looked from side to side. What did this have to do with her blood pressure or her blood sugars? How would this get her that overbook into the GI clinic or get one of the medicines she needed added to the four dollar list at WalMart? Nothing.

And everything.

In his defense,"tell me about that" is a rather loaded statement. That answer could yield anything from a knowing nod to a hyperverbose soliloquy. I couldn't tell if my resident was frustrated with my detour or if he just wasn't sure what to expect out of your answer. But he was gracious and respectful so I believe it was more the latter.

Honestly? I wasn't sure what to expect either.

You reached into your patent leather pocket book and pulled out a key chain filled with multicolored key fobs. My first thought was that these represented grandchildren or foster children or travels or years on a job. But once you lifted them all the way up, I could see what they were.

NA: Narcotics Anonymous

"This is my twentieth year of sobriety this week. It's a very important week for me." Your face looked proud. As well it should have.

Narcotics Anonymous? Sobriety? You? 

I was stunned into silence. I just nodded my head and furrowed my brow. This wasn't what I expected but it did explain more about that handshake. This wasn't what I thought you'd say. No, not one bit. I tried to be cool.

"Twenty years is a long time. Congratulations." That's what I finally managed to say. It felt canned because I was still reeling from that revelation.

"Yeah. Baby, it's like a new life," you responded. "A brand new life for me."

"It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me, yeah. And I'm feeling good. . . ."

It was like Ms. Nina Simone was standing right there in that room singling those lyrics out loud instead of in my head. Your voice was even raspy like hers and that statement filled with just as much meaning.

Sure. Deliberate. Tough.

"I can see that in your eyes. And feel it in the way you shake hands." That made us both chuckle in unison. I obviously wasn't the first to comment on your firm grip.

"Twenty years away from crack is a long time, but by the grace of God I been making it. Every day. I just get up and take that day. Then I go to bed thankful and wake up to take the next one."

"Do you have children?" I asked. I'm not sure where that came from. I just wanted to hear more about who you were.

You beamed and nodded. "Four wonderful and patient grown up kids. You know? I was in my forties already when I started using. Had just got a divorce 'cause my husband liked to drink and then put his hands on me. I got tired of that so left him, but I was still looking for ways to abuse myself. Almost like I somehow thought it was what I deserved."


"Yeah. I had a uncle used to touch me when I was a girl. And all the men used hit on women back then, too. That'll make you grow up hating yourself. Drugs just an extension of all that, you know? I waited late to start messing with 'em but once I did, I was hooked." All the while, you still had your hands stacked in your lap with those ankles crossed carefully and daintily at the ankle.

"Did that hurt your relationship with your kids?"

"They was adults, like I said. But really, they was just very, very gracious. In every single way. I went to a treatment program and they was coming to see about me and everything. And I give it to them 'cause I had hit rock bottom. I was out there taking dates to get high and all that. One time I spent almost $3000 in one day."

"Taking dates?"

"Yeah. That's what they call it when you on the street and you prostituting your body for crack."

And that image was enough to make me want to change the channel. I didn't like the idea of you, my elegant matriarch "taking dates" and at rock bottom. I couldn't get my mind around someone abusing your body and robbing you of your innocence as a child. No, I didn't like this one bit. I liked my fairytale version from earlier.

My resident spoke up just in the nick of time. "Twenty years? Wow. I didn't even know that about you, Mrs. Maxwell."

You swung your head in his direction. "Well, it's true," you said. "All of it."

And you had the keychains to prove it.

Turns out that you were a grandmother and also a great-grandmother. Had your late husband lived to see this year, you would have celebrated your forty-fifth year of marriage the very week before. So, I guess you were all those things I thought initially. You were also everything that handshake conveyed.

Sure. Deliberate. Tough.

"Congratulations, Mrs. Maxwell. I know your family is so, so proud."

"I'm proud of myself."

"I'm proud of you, too."

After that, you reached out and hugged me tight. Right there in the middle of the visit. Then you showed me every last one of your keychains, one for each year of sobriety. Then we laughed and talked about things like pollen counts and humidity in the South. We even talked about sour cream pound cake.

Finally I stood and prepared to leave. You reached out for my hand and shook it again. Red nails pressing into the back of my hand just like before. Then I thought about your daddy's take on the whole thing and what that handshake said about you before I even heard you speak your truth.

Sure. Deliberate. Tough.

You know what? I think your daddy was right.

Happy Tuesday. And Happy Sobriety, too.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . .taking it back to the 90's.

and this one, too. . . .just for my elegant, strong, deliberate, and tough matriarch. Because it's like a new life. And she's feeling good. Sorry Mr. Buble, but nobody sings it like Ms. Nina Simone. And if you don't agree, you don't know good music, baby!


  1. This touched me deeply -- beautiful.

  2. I just want to thank you for writing here where we can read it. I just want to thank you for doing what you do.

  3. Anonymous Jo -- My patients touch me deeply. Thanks.

    Sister Moon -- She had a strength that made me think of you. Thank you for doing what you do.

  4. We've ALL got a story.........I remind myself of that each morning I greet my 2nd graders! They too have and come with a story. I absolutely love & admire the way you share your story and those of your patients. Keep healing them and us, your loyal & faithful readers. I needed encouragement today.........

  5. It is amazing, isn't it, what you will hear when you can come up with just the right combination of intrusion and invitation... thank you for this story, as always.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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