It is Holy Week, and for the eleventh time I am sitting in a surgical waiting area, lost in my thoughts and feeling a teeny-tiny bit sorry for myself. Anne, my cherished partner, is – yet again – in surgery and I am hoping she will not surrender to the temptation to leave this “mortal coil” (to which she has no great attachment). As ever, I am watching for a person in scrubs to come out and “tell me how it went.” While I know this drill inside and out, I remind myself how much I hate it.
Also as usual, I am trying to be invisible. I want to wallow in my thoughts. I want to be the older, bookish woman in the corner whom no one will remember. (If I committed a crime, they would not be able to describe me.) Invisibility is my super power, and I revel in the privacy it provides.
That it is Holy Week is an ironic twist that my inner Catholic is toying with– trying to reconcile Anne’s trial and injury to Jesus’s. Just as I am exploring the metaphorical significance of anesthesia and resurrection, I spot him. Everything in me becomes wary. All my introvert, self-pitying cells yell, “Run!” (In the threat-response world I am a freezer. I don’t fight. I don’t flee. I freeze. And I freeze now, with my nose deeply in my cell phone, observing him from afar.) My suspicions are confirmed. He is indeed a PE. The dreaded “Predatory Extrovert.”
He works the waiting room like a bad car salesman, striking up a conversation with one person after another, one table at a time. I learn more about him than anyone has a right to know. I despise PEs. They go from person to person taking all the attention and energy they can get from one, then move on to the next. Energy vampires, they deplete a person’s vitality, counting on the norm that no one will be overtly rude. They tell their story, reap all the sympathy and attention possible, and then move along to do it again. PEs have a bottomless need to be the center of your interest until you have nothing more to give. They are immune to social cues that say, “Please. Not now.”
I recognize this particular PE. Not specifically, but I know his type. He looks like the men who show up at our gun violence prevention protests, with their sidearms and assault weapons, and stand too close to us. They want us to go home. They want us to shut up. My body stiffens. My heart beats faster. I listen without appearing to. I observe him.
He looks to be in his late seventies. He walks with a swagger, his huge USMC belt buckle like a silver license plate under his protruding belly. He has a beige cowboy hat, walnut colored cowboy boots, and white hair peeking out from the brim of his hat. His jeans are crisply pressed, his blue flannel shirt is clean and wrinkleless. I overhear him – no avoiding it, after all – tell his story several times. He is from Eastern Washington. He owns a trucking company over there. His wife of forty-six years is undergoing her third back surgery. He was in the Marines.
Everything confirms my initial perception.
While he is deluging a family with his story, the receptionist who keeps families updated about their respective patient’s surgery calls into the waiting room, “Mel? Is there a Mel here for Muriel?”
I look at the PE. He looks like a “Mel.” I’m willing to wager an hour’s pay that he’s her guy. No response. She repeats her call, “Mel? Is there a Mel here for Muriel??” PE continues his outpouring of unrequested info. I guess I am wrong. I look around for the real Mel. No one steps forward.
The receptionist starts going from table to table. “Mel? Is there a Mel?”
Finally she asks at the table where PE is loudly telling them how many employees he has. “Mel?”
“Yes! That’s me!” (Aha!) She pulls PE aside and gives him information on Muriel. He nods. His eyebrows knit. He nods again. Yes, our PE is Mel. Mel who is here with Muriel. The family at the table where he was talking quietly get up and leave. When Mel finishes with the receptionist, he turns back to find his listeners no where in sight. He goes back to where he has left his coat and computer, adjusts his denim jacket on the back of his chair, checks the computer screen, and looks up to scan the room.
He is looking my way. He has run out of audiences.
I mentally go over my options: Gather my things and head for the elevator. Throw him a wilting scowl that would signal I was in no mood for chit chat. Turn my back and start talking to an imaginary friend on my cell phone. He is coming toward my table where my open book sits next to the deli salad I brought for lunch. I pop open the clear plastic salad container and pick up a fork to eat. I hope he is afraid of salad.
“Did you get one for me?” He approaches with a booming, smiling voice.
Again, I go over possible responses. I heave a great, quiet sigh. Anne will be in surgery for at least two more hours. I am going nowhere. I decide to ground myself and hunker down for the blitz. I tell myself that this is a prime opportunity to practice kind communication. I have lots of time, and nothing to lose. If I wanted opportunities to practice my Bodhisattva* skills, this would be my chance. I repeat my mantra.
Do No Harm, but Take No Shit.
He is waiting for my response. Do no harm, I remind myself.
“No, just this one.” I say, stabbing a forkful of lettuce and looking in his direction.
He asks what sort of salad it is, and where I purchased it. Do I know the places to eat around here? He pulls up a chair at the small table.
He is a little confused about how to engage me. I am not smiling. Not really offering much. Not unpleasant, but not invitational. I snag a cherry tomato and dip it in dressing.
“Are you waiting for someone in surgery?” he leans back against the chair, like this is his porch.
This is a surgical waiting area, Cowboy.
I think of several sarcastic answers. No, I’m homeless and it’s warm in here. No, I’m trying to duck the cops, you? No, I’m a reporter doing a story on predatory extroverts.
I look at him evenly.
“Your husband?” he is finding firmer ground.
This stops him. I am willing to bet my car that he has never heard a woman respond with that word. He blinks twice. Weighing whether this is worth the vampiring. I am the only person remaining in the area.
He continues. “Me too.”
I nod. I smile an understanding smile. Do no harm.
Then he tells me all the things he has told everyone else. Marines. Trucking company. To this one he adds, “Muriel, my wife, always does the payroll. It’s due tomorrow, so I guess I’ll have to do it myself this time.”
“What kind of surgery?” he turns it back to our earlier topic.
“Knee surgery. Her second.”
“Oh yeah. I hear that usually goes okay. Muriel is having her third back surgery.” Something passes over his face. I don’t quite catch it. Fear? Alarm? Grief?
I raise my eyebrows slightly and nod. “Mm.” Sympathy.
He looks over at the television playing on low volume into the empty room. A story about US Army veteran Miguel Perez is being shown. The headline crawl reads, “Army Vet Deported to Mexico.” This seems to energize Mel.
What follows is a set of firmly stated opinions, each statement followed by demanding “Do you Agree?!”
He narrows his eyes, “We have GOT to do something about these immigrants! They are taking over, and the law is the law! DO YOU AGREE??”
It’s more of a barking order than a question. I’m startled by it. I take a breath.
Clearly he expects to hear some version of “Yes! Totally!” from me. I decide instead to give him a slow, thoughtful response. (He might decide to walk away!)
I have all day. Take no shit.
“I see this country as a place of safety. I’m a nurse. I work with a lot of immigrants and refugees in public health. They are amazing people with some really terrible stories. I think our laws could use some updating, sure, but I hope we are always a place people want to come. That guy — the one they deported – he served in the army. He put his life on the line for our country.” I watch Mel’s face. He is thinking. I add, “Like you.”
“He pauses for a couple of beats. He looks at the screen again. Now a video plays of a local man being handcuffed and led away from a traffic stop.
“A lot of people belong in jail! DO YOU AGREE??”
Another breath. “Well, I worked in the jail for some years, and lots of people do belong there, but some of them don’t. We don’t really know what to do with some of our most vulnerable people. When they annoy us, we put them in jail. It’s a hard place to be.”
“You were a nurse in the jail?”
“Here in Seattle?”
He thinks for a moment. “Were you scared?”
“There were a lot of officers around. Not as dangerous as you might think. Hard though. Lots of inmates who never got a break, really. Our job was to take care of their health. I liked working there. Fascinating, really.”
“I bet.” He seems a little daunted. Looks down at his hands for a moment, then back to the TV screen. The “March for Our Lives” kids are shown giving speeches, asking for gun legislation. Urging their peers to vote.
“Those kids! What do they know, really? They need to finish their education before they start raising hell. I went to school on the GI bill. Got a master’s degree in business! I always say, ‘You can’t get enough education!’ DO YOU AGREE??”
By now he knows I am not going to just go along. He waits, wondering how I will handle this one. He looks triumphant, as though he has made an irrefutable point.
I smile. “Well, school is a great thing for some people. But to tell you the truth, I wish they would go back to giving kids a choice about taking more trade classes in school. Not everyone is made for college, and we sure need more people in the trades. Have you tried to get a plumber lately? My brother is an electrician, and he would never have done well in a university. But he is a heck of an electrician. So, yes, education is a great thing, and I hope we look ahead and help kids prepare for a satisfying life making a living wage. That seems important to me.”
He settles in his seat a bit. I prepare for his next pronouncement.
“You’re a nurse?”
“Last time Muriel had surgery it didn’t go too well. They took her to ICU after, and they had to put her into a coma so they could put the breathing tube into her.” He looks down at his lap. “It was just a couple of days, and then she started doing better.”
“That sounds pretty scary.”
“The nurses saved her, I think. I stayed here the whole time. I watched them work. They brought her back.” He doesn’t look up at me. Still remembering. That same look that I saw earlier crosses his face, and then comes to rest on it. A look that says life without Muriel would be very, very empty.
I look over at Mel. He looks up at me. I see him for the first time. An old fellow whose wife, while in good hands, is still in danger. Like me, he is weighing the thought of life alone. Of losing the other half of his soul. It doesn’t play well – in his head or mine.
In that moment something happens. I feel it in my chest, deep under my breastbone. A softening. A shift.
Always before I’ve dealt with boors and bullies with a one-two punch. Usually it’s “tolerate and run.” Sometimes it’s “halt and counter-punch.” In a magnanimous moment it might be “bless and release.” But this time it’s different. I feel warm. I open up in a subtle wash of kindness. It feels a teeny-tiny bit like love.
The word “Tenebrae” rises in my mind from eleventh grade catechism. Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” Tenebrae comes at the end of Holy Week. Just before the crucifixion. Before the relief and ecstasy of the resurrection. Mel and I are in tenebrae. Together. Two people waiting to hear that our “one” is okay and on the mend. Two people in a surgical waiting room hoping to hear that life will go on.
Mel wants to know that for a brief moment he is not alone. That someone hears him. That someone sees his distress and knows what to do with it.
“Well,” he starts to get up, “That payroll isn’t going to do itself.” He reaches out to shake my hand, “I hope it all goes well with your wife.”
Sitting Old Man in a Hat, Rembrandt
“Same to you,” I say, looking him in the eyes and holding his hand firmly, without shaking it.
I turn back to my book, but I don’t see the words. I think of Muriel and picture her in a hospital bed bathed in healing light.
You can never get enough chances to change your mind.
Do you agree?
*In Buddhism, “kick-ass kindness warrior”