Today starts out well and ends well but goes south a bit in between. I feel myself being judgmental and critical of the woman who cuts my hair—who I like. When Ralph’s is out of bird seed, I go grumbling to CVS and pay twice as much. I listen to my mind when I walk between the stores, some crazy, twisted descent, like everything in the world is now crummy. Back at Ralph’s again, I finally ask why I haven’t seen Mark, and I find out he’s been promoted. He’s no longer here. I had already made my gloomy descent, but this is beyond awful. For me, Mark was the heart of this store, the one who fostered kindness and generosity in everyone who works here. I walk to the checkout. “Everything changes,” I say. But I have been so in love with my grocery store. I can feel all my hope for it oozing away. And for the first time, all the lines are long. I walk up and down twice, dejected and blue. A Latino American man holding one Corona gets my attention, waves me in front of him in line. I try to argue, I have a handful of things to his one lone beer. But he insists. I tell him he’s going to make me cry. “Voy a llorar.” It feels like such a blessing, this kindness. We wish each other well before I go. I ride my bike home, my good cheer restored. What a long, funny day.
I am not so naive or so bigoted to believe all doctors are assholes or all nurses are saints. I know both groups have their fair share of both. But when my stepfather was in the hospital, it was the doctors who were the challenge and the nurses who helped to get us through. It was the nurses and the other family members of patients on the floor. There is something that happens between strangers sitting together in a room when each of you faces losing a loved one. I remember sitting in the little alcove on the eastern side of the oncology floor in the Newport Beach hospital. And I remember a short blonde-haired woman whose husband was dying. I remember seeing recognition when our eyes would meet across the small space. I think we came to love each other a little bit sitting in that room together.
I was sitting there one afternoon, slouched against the blue fabric chairs, when I heard her voice and looked up. She was standing in the hallway, head tilted up toward the oncologist. “You want to understand?” his voice now, loud against the white tiles. “Then you go back ten years,” he growled at her, “and go to medical school.” I don’t remember what came next, only the way the bottom fell out of me for her in that terrible moment. I knew it had already been almost impossible to remain upright, to keep limbs and torso stitched together, and here she was bludgeoned now by his mean, defensive arrogance. I wanted to scream at him on her behalf. I may very well have gone after him, spoken my mind. I was 24 and had a habit of doing so. But I hope I went to her instead. I hope I offered comfort when she needed it. And I hope my eyes spoke those same volumes to hers whenever we met in the alcove or passed each other in the hallway. Brave, kind stranger—que le vaya bien.