Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Chance Encounter

I was sitting in a dank waiting room waiting for my name to be called. The room had no windows; there was no natural light. The fluorescent ceiling lights flickered above. The irony of room decor – posters about getting help for depression - was not lost on me. I sensed a certain feeling of dread in the room. No one wanted to be there. There was no eye contact for fear of striking up an unnecessary conversation. This must have been an ‘unspoken’ rule of the room. There was a faint buzzing sound that filled the room.

I had been waiting for about 30 minutes. It seemed like a long time to wait. The people were a blur to me, being herded into and out of the room. I just sat there with my head in my chest, following the rules - not making eye contact and no conversations. A surly receptionist sat at the front of the room spelling last names out loud instead of trying to pronounce them. It was hard to follow. I jumped every time he spoke a letter in my name praying to just get out of there. He looked discontented, like he was inconvenienced to even be there. I guess this was his job.

I decided to be daring and approach the surly receptionist to ask how much longer. He barely glanced at me. He was short with his non-committal answer, almost pretending I wasn’t even there. I retreated back to my seat, which was now occupied by someone else. Where did this guy even come from? Was he scouting out my chair while I was sitting there? Did I miss a memo about assigned seats? That was my chair! I sat in the next seat and waited, not daring to move again. I couldn’t lose this seat too.

There was a woman next to the surly receptionist who didn’t seem to do anything. She was just taking up space. She pretended to be busy. I can tell when people are pretending to be busy. There was a sudden influx of people who flooded the waiting room. They needed to be checked in. I don’t think they knew the rules of the room – one person was on a cell phone. The surly receptionist became quickly overwhelmed. Perhaps he didn’t like the rule violation. Multitasking was also not his strong suit. The woman next to him decided to help, probably because he became flustered. The surly receptionist didn’t appreciate her help. Apparently this was not her job.

As the line eventually thinned, the surly receptionist struck an argument with the woman next to him. It was loud enough to drown out the buzzing sound, yet no one in the waiting even looked at them. Was I the only one who thought that this was inappropriate? I was in a surreal dream of mundane cruelty. Maybe I could just wake up. I was about to.

A large unkempt man with a bushy beard and tattered clothes walked into the room. He looked homeless. In fact, most people in this waiting room looked homeless. Something was different about this unkempt man. He was smiling. That certainly wasn’t allowed. As he approached the check in, the surly receptionist and the woman stopped arguing. They both anguished to smile, still reeling from their argument. It seemed like their facial muscles had lost the memory of this foreign action, but I swear I saw it.

The unkempt man knew them both. He had been here before. They politely chatted, exchanging the usual pleasantries. Was this even allowed? I felt a slight change in the atmosphere.

As the man finished chatting with the receptionist, he started to walk in my direction. I didn’t make eye contact as he approached me. After all, this was a rule of the room. He’s been here before, so he must know that. He settled on the seat in front of me. He immediately turned and smiled. Was he testing me? I’m not the most personable of people, but I cracked a quick smile and turned my head. I’d broken the rules and was waiting to be reprimanded.

“It’s a good day”, he said, being persistent. I nodded my head, not knowing if I was allowed to speak. It was one thing to make eye contact briefly, but to speak must have been a capital crime.

“This place saved my life”, he quickly added. “I was given less than a year to live. That was five years ago.”

I was intrigued. Damn the rules, my curiosity got the best of me. We started talking. I think everyone was listening to us. Five years ago he got sick. He was dying. After a battery of tests, doctors told him he needed a risky heart surgery to repair a faulty aorta. Without the surgery, he was given a grim prognosis – he was certain to die within a year. What choice did he have? Soon thereafter, he chose the risky surgery to put in a mechanical heart valve. Five years later, he’s sitting in front of me in this room.

The man will be on blood thinners for life for fear of an embolized clot that could lodge in his lungs. He will have future valve replacement surgeries within the next few years since the mechanical valve has a shelf life. None of this mattered to him.

He was alive…and happy. Life had given him a second chance and he was thankful for every day that his manufactured heart valve continued to do its job. And that’s what he chose to focus on. He didn’t fit with the spirit of this room. He didn’t mind waiting in the dank room with the flickering lights for his monthly tests. He even somehow infected the surly receptionist with optimism – or at least selective optimism. These details of his “new” life were all trivial. He was simply happy to be alive.

Just like that, my name was called – actually spelled. At that point I wished they had forgotten me. This was more important. My conversation with the man came to an abrupt end. He wished me luck as I parted through the waiting room doors. I didn’t even get his name. But, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to know his name. I needed his message. The impact of his words left a lasting impression on my brain.

Life is hard – clearly harder on some then others. I can choose to let my unemployment define me – to feel like a failure at the numerous rejections of job hunting. In fact, it would be easy blame the economy or poor management. It would even be understandable.

Or, I can define my own course through life. I can choose to be thankful that I get to spend all day with the people that matter most. I can appreciate that I get to see my son grow into a little boy. I can dream of the life that we have – simple, honest, and pure. Sometimes we just need a little jolt to remember what is important.

As I finished my appointment, I happened to walk past that same waiting room. It was empty, so the surly receptionist was in the hallway. He looked at me and asked, “Did you get what you needed?”

I made eye contact and answered him:

“I got exactly what I needed.”


1 comment:

  1. wow. what a great post. what an incredible message!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.