When I'm sad, she comes to me
with a thousand smiles she gives to me free
~ Jimi Hendix
It was an uneventful visit. Hypertension that needed tweaking, cholesterol medications that needed refilling, and a prostate that was enlarged but responding well to the therapy of choice for it. He nodded hard and said he understood our plans. One or two questions came when I pressed him but even those queries were straightforward, too. With a soft smile he dipped his head and quietly said, "Thank you, doctor."
And that was that.
The resident physician who'd just seen him that morning stood next to the sink. His spine was straight and his eyes laser focused on the patient. When we'd first walked in, he introduced me to his patient, a Grady elder, and pointed out that "nothing was wrong" and "this is my boss and she just comes in to check behind me." And I chuckled while shaking that man's hand adding, "A better way to put it is that we always figure two brains and two hearts caring for you is better than one." And this patient seemed to like that. I mean, mostly he did.
There was a sadness about him. Nothing overt or overwhelmingly so. Just this twinge in his eyes that niggled at me when I first sat down in that chair across from him. I reviewed things as always, and nothing really came out to suggest some clear explanation for it. And he was well-groomed and pleasant and cooperative which were good signs that he was getting along okay. I mean, I guess.
And so. This encounter remained vanilla which, honestly, isn't really a bad thing. I was okay with that even though I knew my mind would return to the something that I saw pooling in his brown eyes. But, as my husband tells me, sometimes it's okay to just leave it where you found it. I mean, sometimes it just has to be that way. That's what I decided I'd do.
I reached for his leathery hand and encircled it once more. "It was good to meet you, sir," I said. Which was true because it was.
"Okay. You have a blessed day, Miss Manning," he replied.
I glanced over at the resident, gave him a playful salute, and prepared to stand up. And all was well and everything was everything.
Then, in my typical small-talky, notice-everythingy way, I pointed at the weathered cap sitting on the patient's head. "Special Forces," I read. "Wow. Was that you?"
It was an innocent question. I really wasn't prying or trying to lead him anywhere. Mostly I was just curious because it wasn't something I saw every day. And honestly, I'm not even exactly certain what happens on "Special Forces." That said, I do know enough to know that having the word "special" put before the kind of "forces" you bring just has to be a big deal.
He cast his eyes downward. "No. It belonged to my brother, Larry. He was in Special Forces. I just put this on today. I ain't even sure why."
And just like that, I knew. I knew what I was seeing and feeling from him earlier. At least, I think I knew.
The past tense of "belonged." The part about not being sure why he was even wearing that hat that day. And the name--Larry. I could have just left it where I found it--this piece of him--but I could not.
"Larry was in Special Forces?"
My patient nodded. His eyes began to well up with tears and he tried his best to look down so that I wouldn't notice. But I did.
"Who is the older brother and who is the younger brother?" And I'm not sure why that was my next question. I guess it just seemed benign enough to go with next.
"Larry was two years older. And he was . . . aaahh heeemmm," he cleared his throat to rid it of as much emotion as he could, "he was. . . .Larry was. . . um. . . .the one that just everyone loved. Everyone." And right after he said that a fat tear rolled down his cheek and disappeared under his chin.
I reached for his hand and didn't say a word. I just squeezed down on it and slid him the box of hospital grade Kleenex that thankfully was in front of me at the moment.
"My brother died in '90. But I miss him and love him like it happened just yesterday. And some days, they just worse than the other ones is all."
"I understand." And I said that because I do. I mean, I really and truly do.
And so I sat there while he wept. And the resident stepped a bit closer to let him know that we were there in solidarity with our patient.
"It don't go away," he said with a moist sigh. "It just don't. No matter how old you get, it just don't. You go on, you know? You live, you know? But some piece of you always changed forever. Especially when you was close like we was." He pulled the tissue to his eyes and cried a bit more. This time with some chest heaves, which broke my heart.
Because, no I am not a Grady elder like this man was. But this was something that I had lived long enough to know about for myself.
"Larry sounds special," I finally said.
"He was the best person I ever knew. And when I was a younger man, I did some things that wasn't really good. I got mixed up in things that I didn't have no business getting mixed up in. And Larry, he ain't never judged me one day. He always saw the best in everybody."
"What an amazing quality."
"Yeah. That's why he the one everybody could agree on loving. Ever just know somebody that make people better? Just how they look in your eyes or smile at you that just make you better?"
And when he asked me that, I swear to you it took every fiber in my being not to break down crying the ugliest of cries. I wanted to jump up on that desk and exclaim, "Yes! Yes, I do know! I know how you feel!" But I didn't. Instead, I just nodded.
"I just don't go away. Today just a rough one for me." He let out a weak chuckle. "I thought putting on his ball cap would make me feel better. I'm sorry for all this. I really am." He glanced over at the resident doctor, too, who softened his expression and shook his head to let him know it was fine. Because it was.
"You honor Larry through your words and your love," I said.
And for the first time, I saw our patient crack a smile. He lifted his eyes and laid them on mine. His next words caught me by surprise. "You have a wisdom about you," he said. He clamped down on my hand when he said that.
"I don't know about that," I countered, "but I know what it feels like to miss a sibling." The patient cocked his head sideways, beckoning me to go on. I paused for a second, trying to decide how much to say. Then I decided not to over think it. "I lost my sister suddenly in 2012. She was a little under two years older than me. And she was wonderful."
"What's her name?" he asked. And I loved it that he did.
"Deanna. Her name was Deanna. And she was like the sun. She was like. . . .the sun." I didn't even want to cry when I told him that. Weirdly, I didn't. I just stared straight into his eyes and kept holding his hand while he did the same.
"It don't go away, do it?" He now spoke to me as a kindred spirit. I returned the gesture.
"No, sir. It don't go away. But some part of me doesn't want it to."
And here is the strange thing: That moment, that little slice of time after this realization that I indeed knew how he felt was a pivotal moment. Instead of us both hugging and crying or feeling the cloak of confluent misery and grief, I think we both felt paradoxically lighter.
That made me think of something I heard recently. Something called "the fellowship of suffering." My pastor spoke of this idea and said this:
"Those who have suffered are uniquely qualified and equipped to support others who are going through what they've been through or are going through."
He also added: "Comfort is life-giving to the comforter as well."
And that really resonated with me, particularly on this day it did.
You don't have to be a church-goer or even a follower of any organized religion to get with that piece of the gospel. A good word is a good word, isn't it? And this--this idea of pain equipping us to provide solace to someone--is a good word, man. I mean. . .just think. . .this capacity to comfort that comes from our own pain could, perhaps, be the silver lining of something awful, right?
I love thinking of that. And I love knowing that being a soft place for someone else to land in their pain will provide me the same. At the same time. How awesome is that?
See, I got to tell this man that my sister was like the sun. And, I promise you, before that moment, I never uttered those words. But it felt so good when I did. And I loved hearing about Larry and about how he, too, was like a ball of light.
About twenty minutes after that exchange I saw the patient standing at the front desk making a follow up appointment. He was talking to Phoebe, one of our clerks, and paused just a moment to put his eyes on me again. "I so appreciate you, Miss Manning," he said while taking my hand.
"I appreciate you, too, sir. And thank you for telling me about Larry."
"And thank you for listening. And for telling me about Deanna."
Phoebe just looked up and kept darting her eyes between us. Then she rested her gaze on me. I offered her a half smile, then reached out for her hand with my other one. As if on cue, she took it. I turned my head to my patient and said, "Phoebe knows, too."
He knew exactly what I meant.
And then, I am not kidding you, he took Phoebe's other hand and we were right there over that counter in a circle of clasped hands. "My brother," Phoebe told him. "Just a few months ago."
We all just squeezed hands and acknowledged what we knew. And it was sacred, that moment. It was.
"You know what I know, sir?" He widened his eyes to see what I'd say next. "I know it don't go away, the missing them part. But my sister? She was like the sun. And even on the gloomiest, darkest days, I know the sun never goes out. It's always there."
"It is," he said with a big smile. "It is." He looked over at Phoebe and she smiled, too.
"It is," she concurred with a nod of affirmation.
I repeated once more, "It is."
After that, I said goodbye to them, walked down the hall, stepped into the nearest bathroom and allowed myself a good, hard cry.
And you know what? It was all good. It was. And it is.
Happy Wednesday. First day on wards. . . . amazement awaits.
Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . . both versions of this song--the original. . . .
. . .and this sublime version from Sting that is my favorite. . .
*story shared with permission, minor details changed to protect anonymity.