Secret Passage

This is a stylized view of a sunflower napkin ring on a paisley tablecloth. It is an image that makes you think of something else. I bet people treating cancer patients think of something else all the time.

The doctor walked out into the hall. He looked tired. He was tired.

The offices and treatment rooms were laid out in a way that he could escape. Escape from those he treated.

He didn’t just treat the sick. He treated the well. The well that were sometimes more terrified than his actual patients. The well who were worried that their beloved sicks would be neglected.

The doctor didn’t neglect anyone. He just couldn’t save them all. When they met him, they were already diagnosed. He was an oncologist. So their illness was cancer.

Cancer isn’t a death sentence. He explained that to those who were referred to him. That said, sometimes people with cancer die. People look to him for their stage. Staging is important. If you’re Stage 1, you feel okay. If you’re Stage 4, you think you’re dead. You might be. Or maybe not.

But the Doctor sees you no matter your stage. And does their best to keep you in the “not dead” category. But it’s their best. And as good as they may be, some will move to the dead category.

But not today. The Doctor was very tired. There was a ten-day medical education thingie that he was still feeling. He’s not a resident anymore!

But, today he saw you, with your biggest, winning smile cemented by yesterday’s tooth polishing at the dentist. Your hair was growing beyond it’s style, sticking out at the back and around your ears like a 70’s Keith Partridge.

You were bronzed from a week at the beach and the last MRI was clean. He told the fourth-year medical student how you helped develop a new treatment protocol. They talked coded doctor talk a bit. Not to be rude, but because they were excited.

But the oncologist still looked tired. You saw him before he was excited. When he left via the back entrance. The secret staff exit from the chemo bar. You were late. You sheepishly signed in and then met up with the money taker. Next:  your blood work. Then you surreptitiously snuck to the restroom–the one behind the elevators–before you got your blood pressure (117/70), temp (98.4°) and weight (none of your fcuking business) took.

When you got to the bathroom, it was occupied. So you stood, legs crossed, and waited.

You looked up when you heard a rustle at the far end of the hallway. You thought someone had found the stairwell that was invisible to you. Oncology was only a single floor up, but the corridor to the steps was like the room of requirements, only there if you knew it.

When you looked up, you saw a rumpled man with a stethoscope snaked around his neck. He was leaving from the secret staff exit. He looked up to see you doing the pee-pee dance. You gave a broad, silent wave. He gave a half wave from around his belt just before he opened the door across from the stairwell and disappeared. Into his retreat. Where he could collect himself. Away from the hope(lessness) of the chemo bar.

He’s a good doc. He needs a break. You don’t want him to break. He’s doing god’s work.


a sample of a format for a handwritten paper

Dear Miss Harper Lee,

I know you’re dead, and therefore unlikely to read this, but I write it nonetheless, because it’s a letter not just to you. You are welcome to read it, though, if that is such a thing given your current state.

I wanted to thank you for my favorite teacher, Mr. Davidson. He loved your book so so so so very much. He made me love it, too. I bet he made other students feel about it, as well.

He taught us the word empathy via your story. I remember that day. I was at Carter Jr. High School.

He was a beloved teacher who tragically lost his young wife who I think also taught at the school. I knew that his wife died because there was a memorial to her in a glass enclosed garden at the school. I don’t know when it happened. It was before my time there, and as a 12-year-old anything 3-4 years prior was the equivalent of olden days. Also this was just something we “knew” and didn’t ask questions about at that time. Like Scout knew some things she just knew.

This is just background, though, because this thing we “knew” was just, you know, background. I don’t have any inkling if he was a different teacher before, since I didn’t know him before.

He didn’t bring his personal loss into the classroom. But, as you wrote, we all bring all of us into every interaction. I’m sure it impacted him, and therefore us, but that’s something I didn’t realize until many years later.

Yes, I still think about this English teacher who taught me to walk around in someone else’s skin before passing judgement (or was that you?). Trying to understand someone doesn’t make what they do “right,” but it acknowledges the other’s humanity, and that makes us more human, too.

I was a bratty smarty pants–not as smart as Hermione Granger but equally annoying. I would read ahead and do my assignments ahead because I was engaged. The class slowed me down. I bet my class participation included spoilers. Mr. Davidson let me write my final paper early. Then he had to do something with me as the class plodded through your novel.

He gave me my first book of poetry to read and sent me off on independent study in the library. I was to write a paper about Edna St. Vincent Millay. I didn’t realize at the time that he was encouraging me to keep my own independence and follow my dreams. Something else I realized many years later when I reread her and about her.

When he handed me back my paper, he looked at me very seriously. Me, Hermione Granger-esque, figured that I was in for it. I really didn’t understand poetry, and maybe I misinterpreted like everything.

He apologized to me.

He said that he was sorry that he was unable to challenge me enough. I heard this at the same time I saw the A+ on the top of the page.

I learned right in that moment that it wasn’t enough to do well or even excellently. Although that remains an ambition. In that exchange, I learned that it was important to stretch yourself as much as you can and to seek out people who will make you reach.

A few years later, I was in the high school gym watching a basketball game. Mr. D. was there and I hadn’t seen him for a long time (3 years which had become less like “olden days” but still a long time). I don’t recall the specifics of the dialogue, but I do remember what he said at the end.

He admonished my high school cynicism–translated to 2016 that would be the unending teen irony. He also told me that a cynic is simply an idealist. In that sentence, he created a space for me to be both.

I finally met up with Mr. D. in his office at the school three or four years ago (which in today’s time frame seems like just yesterday) after decades apart. I thanked him in person for his encouragement that I still draw down from. It wasn’t enough, but I brought him a coffee and a donut.

Thank you, Miss Harper Lee, for being a connector. And for your wonderful book.

Your loyal reader,
Doc Think