You can imagine quite a bit about someone’s situation based on their location.
I’m sitting in my car in a parking garage at the Oregon Health & Science University. Perched at the top of Marquam Hill overlooking the Willamette River in beautiful Portland, Oregon, the OHSU campus houses the University Hospital, the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center is here, too, as are the Hatfield Research Center and the Center for Women’s Health.
I’ve spent ample time in all these places. More than my share, for a civilian. I’m not a doctor or a soldier. I’m a scientist, a writer, a pacifist…a “noncombatant”as they say in international human rights law. I would have gladly spent my time at OHSU in their labs, titrating samples, looking into microscopes, poring over records, searching for clues to modern medicine’s most pressing mysterious. But that’s not why I was here.
There’s a particular antiseptic soap they use in the facilities here that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The smell of it on my hands brings back memories that I’m not ready to remember.
I caught a glimpse of them, though, in the face of a man in the elevator just now. He was an educated man, perhaps a lawyer or a CEO. Even in jeans and a sweatshirt, he carried himself in the way that certain men do, with a quiet authority that telegraphs to the world: “Powerful people listen to what I say. You probably should, too.” He was tall, lean, seemingly in excellent health.
But I recognized the look on his face as he stepped off the elevator onto the floor that reads “Radiation Medicine.” It’s a look I know well. I’ve seen it in the eyes of people I love. I’ve seen it in the mirror, too. It’s that look that says:
“How in the world did I end up here?”
“This isn’t supposed to be happening to me,” the look says. “Yes, logically, I know that this is the kind of thing that can happen, that does happen, to people all the time. And obviously, it IS happening, right now, because why the hell else would I be here? Fuck. I can’t believe I am here. But I am. I.am.here.and.this.is.happening.”
My guess is that he was going to pick up his wife. He looked like a man who in a caretaking role who is doing his best to keep it all together, who is searching for the right expression — the exact phrase and mien that will communicate “Everything is fine. It’s all under control. There’s no reason to worry.”
The sick person wears a different look. I know that one well, too. It’s the one I use to identify others who have been in my “situation,” who might be searching for someone who understands, who has “been there.” We look one another in the eye and offer a silent message of acknowledgement. “I see you. I see your fear and your exhaustion. Under them, I sense your resilience and your fire. Be well, brother. Stay strong, sister.”
I really should be getting home. Traffic will be terrible if I wait too long.
And yet, something in me longs to linger just a few more minutes. To be here, to offer up my prayers for all the sick ones and those who care for them: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, orderlies, family, friends…The whole village it takes to keep us well.
I’ll end with my favorite poem, “Naknuwisha.” It’s here, too, in the lobby of the children’s hospital.
The glare of the lights make it difficult to read, but here is an excerpt:
Be part of something old –
Be home here in the great world
Where rain wants to give you drink
Where forest wants to be your house
Where frogs say your name and your name
Where wee birds carry your wishes far
And the sun reaches for your hand –
Be home here
Be with us all