In switching jobs, I had to turn in "my" laptop to my previous place of employment, since it belonged to them. It was a sad and difficult moment. Luckily, Henry has an almost identical laptop, and being both a thoughtful husband and a skilful system administrator, he set me up as a user there, and transferred every last little thing to it, so that I could sit on the sofa and do all the computing I usually do without ever noticing a change. And yet, it was not the same. I could not make the leap and feel at home on that laptop.
It was the phenomenon of the irreplaceable shoes. You have a pair of shoes that you love; they are cute, they are comfortable, they go with everything. You polish them, you carefully keep them salt-free in the winter. The heel (which is just the right height) wears down; you have it repaired. The sole starts to get thin; you have it replaced at some expense with a fancy rubbery sole. Eventually you have to admit to yourself that these perfect shoes have lived a long and useful life, and it may be time to set them lovingly and tearfully adrift on an ice floe to meet their fate. But fate is kind, and to your delight, soon after, you find an identical pair, recently discontinued, at TJ Maxx! Your heart full, you hold them close, pay for them, and run home. The next day, you get dressed and finish with the shoes. But somehow, you aren't quite ready to wear them out, so you put them back in the closet. Day after day, the same scenario unfolds. Finally you realized that although these shoes seem to be identical, they lack that certain something that made your old shoes so very, um, sole-matey. You will never bond with them in quite that way, and sooner or later they will go to Kiwanis and be a wonderful bargain for someone else. The only way to move forward is to find an all-new pair of irreplaceable shoes that have their own delights and their own way of perfection.
So you can imagine my joy when, at the end of last week, my new work laptop was delivered. I had a desktop machine, but it was indeed a machine, and not personal. Now that I have this lovely, lovely new MacBook, I feel like I can think again. I have decided that the computer is how my brain connects to the outside world, and my notebooks (paper ones) are how my brain connects back to myself. That explains why I've been stuck in a loop for all these weeks, and now, here I am, outside in the fresh air.
Okay, I admit that's a few blocks past eccentric and into the neighborhood of the downright weird.
First, I experienced the plus side of working in the hospital: my beautiful new niece was born right there, just yesterday. Her name is Evie—Evangeline Claire—a lovely name for a very lovely baby. I spent much of my working day today popping up to the maternity ward on the fourth floor to see her. My brother even let me hold her, at least long enough for him to scarf down a yummy-looking hospital sandwich.
And B), it was the last day of kindergarten. Joe came home with packets of suggestions for summer reading, folders of his story writings, much of it featuring rabbits, a construction paper portfolio full of art, and many little gifts, such as an eraser shaped like a tiny piece of cake, from his Japanese classmates. (I held steady on the rudder on my course of going for the "Least Involved Mom" prize; it didn't even occur to me to give presents to the other students, let alone the teachers.)
The best thing Joe brought home was a book he made for Henry for Father's Day. The laminated cover has a picture of Henry picking strawberries from trees under a smiley-face sun. The first page is captioned, "I love my dad," and has a drawing of Joe and Henry (easily identifiable by the scribbly black hair hovering above his head in every picture) and a heart. The second page says, "My dad is a good cook," and shows Henry in the kitchen making pancakes, which are lined up on the stovetop like marbles. Walter is standing by the stove, apparently waiting for a pancake to conveniently roll off onto the floor. On page three, Joe and Henry are lying on Joe's bed, and it says, "My dad reads me story's." The book closes with a drawing of Henry and Joe in the living room. Lightning bolts (indicating, according to the artist, a great noise and a terrible smell) are emanating from Henry's rear end, and the caption reads: "I love you when you are silly."
I might classify that particular activity differently, but I love them both when they're silly. And also when they're not.
My new job, while not itself of a medical nature, is currently situated within the University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital. Most of my co-workers are centered up on the sixth floor, in a dedicated area, but I and a couple of others are on the third floor, in an odd little hallway that could very well be the inspiration for Being John Malkovitch. I have a nice set of windows in my office—that overlook part of the lobby. If I lean way, way over, I can almost see the feet of the giant plastic Big Bird down there.
The third floor, I discovered on my first day of work, is where Pediatric Surgery and the family waiting areas are located. There are tiny crib-shaped gurneys and little red wagons with pillows in them by the staff elevators, and great wide doors leading off into bright and stark hallways, and doctors and nurses in surgical garb hurrying back and forth. I don't have a lot of experience with hospitals or the medical world in general. I don't come from a family of health care providers; in fact, I come from several long lines of people who make a living by trying to talk other people in or out of things—lawyers, teachers, investment bankers. I don't consider myself squeamish, but I can't bear to think about people or animals suffering, and I hate gore, whether it's for entertainment or educational purposes. I confess I nearly fainted not once, but twice, watching childbirth films in Lamaze class.
Thus I was not prepared to be quite this close, on a daily basis, to children and families in pain. For the first two days, I wondered if I had made the right decision, coming here. I wondered if I might be able to find circuitous routes through the back halls of the hospital, so I could avoid catching sight of patients. I thought about trying to work at home.
But day by day, as I saw that the nurses and doctors who were hurrying about seemed to care about whatever task was at hand, and as I saw families talking earnestly with medical staff or clergy, and other families—with a tired-looking child in a little wheelchair—leaving the hospital, I figured out what everybody else already knows. These are the lucky ones. These children, however traumatic their experience here is, and however tragically sick they are, are in the very best place in the world they can be. If there is help for them, it is here. This is a place where hope is real.
Yesterday, as I was suited up in my tennis shoes and backpack, iPod in hand, heading out past the elevators for the trek home, I saw a woman sitting on a couch, alone. Next to her was a stack of little clothes—a tee shirt, jeans, socks, and superhero underwear—a special pillow, and a stuffed bear. She was crying, the way you cry when you are a good, strong person, but you are scared and exhausted and your heart just hurts. So I sat down next to her and gave her a hug and listened.
She told me all the things I know I would be thinking too in her place—how heartbreaking it was to see her seven-year-old being wheeled into surgery, how helpless she felt, how traumatized she feared he would be. I listened and my heart hurt, too, because I knew how inadequate I was, and that there must be a better way to listen than I know, and that if I only knew how I might be able to help her. But I didn't know those things, so I just listened, and heard how much she loved him, and I held her hand.
I do not know if prayer is useful, but I do know that it is something I can do.
I was in our local home and garden store (called, hmm, Downtown Home and Garden), and the clerk described a couple we both know as "happy as bees." Doesn't that make much more sense than "happy as a clam?" Clams just lie there, like rocks with blobby insides, but bees buzz around being busy and doing bee dances and making honey and pollinating flowers. They seem to find their little bee lives worthwhile. Plus, they're much cuter than clams, and their stinger gives them an appealing edginess. Clams do taste better (yes, I have eaten a bee, covered in chocolate. It tasted like a Rice Crispy.), but I can't see how that would contribute to one's happiness. I'm voting for beelike over clamlike.