Bringer or Taker?

My doctor as a teenager and into my early adulthood was my mother’s doctor, who only agreed to take me on because my mother had gone to her for years. I was always the youngest patient in her office, generally by a few decades.

During one doctor’s visit in my early twenties, I was particularly anxious. My liver values were off due to my progressing alcoholism, and I had been called back to the doctor’s office on a day the doctor normally didn’t schedule appointments. I only had to look around the waiting room to clearly see that only those with obvious aliments were there that day. Mixed into the sea of gray hair there was a heaviness that was still unfamiliar to me at this stage of my life. Today, I recognize this feeling of heaviness as shadow death stalking its next victim.  

The elderly couple that sat across from me hardly spoke in the twenty plus minutes we all waited together for the doctor in a small, stuffy waiting room. I recall being able to see her blue veins through her almost transparent skin and wondering how the frail man beside her could possibly care for her. They both reminded me of parchment paper after it’s been cooked, colored by the heat and dryness of the oven. Frail and worn from time and life.

At one point the elderly women struggled a bit with a cough and her dutiful husband shuffled his way across a room that I had regarded as small before seeing his efforts to make it to the water cooler. The room seemed to expand with each shuffled step. A few minutes into me watching this old man struggle to retrieve a glass of water for his suffering wife, the thought ran through my head that I should help him. But due to my youth, inexperience, and intense self-focus, I did nothing but watch.

By the time the elderly husband returned with the prized glass of water, his parched wife eagerly drank as if it were the nectar of the gods. Then the woman was then called back into the doctor’s office and as she got up to follow the nurse back, she motioned for her husband to sit and rest, that she would be back shortly. My heart sank at the thought that I could have saved this man some of his energy if I had only spoken up earlier and retrieved the water for his wife. Now, he was too depleted to accompany his wife on what I only assumed was to receive terrible news.

The elderly man looked down at his feet with a straight face and loudly muttered to himself as his beloved wife followed the nurse to the lab area “Oh geez, I don’t know what we’re going to do if she’s pregnant!” In that instant the sad narrative I had painted in my mind of these two people I was sharing space with washed away in laughter. Everyone laughed but the old man didn’t break character and continued with overly dramatic gestures that you would expect to see from a man many decades younger and in a different phase of life all together.

A few minutes later, his wife returned to the waiting room from what appeared to be a urine test of some kind. He continued to play into the comic relief gently prodding his wife about the results of her pregnancy test and mimicking a first-time father with perfect timing and execution of hilarious commentary. The entire waiting room was light with laugher.

When my name was called, I didn’t want to go. Like everyone else in the room, I was heavily invested in the comical drama that was unfolding in the waiting room. The frail couple I had met at the start of my wait had disappeared and what replaced them were two people in love, who were throwing humor and laughter in the face of uncertainty. Their physical state may have been weakened by time, but their spirits were only made stronger. It was indeed a glorious thing to witness.

Last week, a cough that had been nagging for weeks turned into something more and I found myself unable to complete even the simplest of tasks. On Monday morning I sat in a doctor’s office waiting room with a negative covid test and a cough that would make the Marlboro man blush. But instead of sitting in self-obsessed fear, I took the quiet moments afforded to me in the empty waiting room to reflect, meditate, and center myself. The phrase “the world will go on, with or without me” centered me as I fondly reflected on the experience of the elderly couple in my old doctor’s waiting room over twenty years earlier.

My stoic practices did not fail me as I was able to find serenity before my name was called to see the doctor. While I do not possess great humor, I do possess the ability to talk to and listen to those I come across, so I focused on that. However terrible I may have felt, and whatever news awaited me, I was not the only one impacted.

Whether we like it or not, our lives are interwoven with all those around us and it is always within our power to choose how we show up.

As I cheerfully chatted with the nurses and doctors, my uniqueness faded away and I became one of many, which brought comfort for all people involved. It wasn’t until I made my way back to radiology for chest x-rays, did I encounter someone who was uncomfortable.

The x-ray technician was young and was happily going through the motions until she picked up my chart and said “ok, we’re doing chest x-rays today.” I walked over to the machine and assumed the correct stance to which the tech responded with “you really know what you’re doing; you’ve probably had to do a lot of these.” Her tone suggested that she had begun to paint a negative narrative of my existence in her mind, like what I had done to the elderly couple years earlier.

There are not many times in my life where I can say with any level of confidence that my actions are guided by any force beyond this realm. However, in this slice of time I somehow became a comedian and had the technician laughing by the time the x-rays were complete. The mood was soft, and the air was light.

It didn’t have to go that way. I could have fed into the technician’s assumptions about my condition and told her of my childhood riddled with mysterious lung infections or the smoking habit I picked up in fourth grade. I could have gleaned pity or basked in whatever uniqueness I could claim as my own to take energy instead of giving it. But instead, there was nothing but smiles and laughter. I was the bringer of energy instead of the taker.

Today I am much better. Steroids and antibiotics have vanquished my illness, at least for the time being. As much as I’ve felt my role in my own life was diminished by my ill health, I take comfort that I was always present. Today, I will remember that this life will go on with or without me. That I can be the bringer or the taker of other people’s energy and that, that choice is always available whatever the circumstances may be.

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