I’ve never been able to shake the memory of a man I met eleven years ago in an Atlanta hospital. “Met” is probably not the best verb to describe our encounter. Geez. It wasn’t even an encounter, but what do you call it when two people sit side by side on a couch for thirty to forty minutes without speaking and one party’s (his) demeanor and appearance leaves an indelible impression?
I’m putting part of the story in the blog and have shared it with my writing group on several occasions. We all feel something’s missing, but what? Perhaps it’s not worth remembering, much less writing about. Except that it is. The segment below takes place when I’m at Northside to visit a newborn grandson two years after my initial experience with the candy man.
Help me. What do I need to do to make this better? Stronger?
“I quickly mounted the circular staircase of the atrium, and when I reached the top, I spotted a dozen or more people, most of them middle-aged, sitting on green vinyl couches. I was immediately transported to a morning nearly two years previous. On that day, several family members had gathered to await the birth of Olivia Jayne, my son and daughter-in-law’s first child. I remembered the excitement of that spring morning, mine bordering on giddiness, as we spent the day on those same couches and chairs arranged to encourage conversation.
“On that Saturday in May, we had walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We grandparents were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then the medical personnel shooed us out. As Teri, Amanda’s mother, and the rest of us made small talk in the huge waiting area, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere. What could be taking so long?
“Camus said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped, hoping to ease the tension. Tight, anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.
“Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for the tour. Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind the entry. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a security code.
“Several medical personnel, clad mostly in white coats, bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”
“Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. We had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assortment of people as the day progressed. The latest arrival was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.
“Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.
“The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my furtive glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.
“Looking straight ahead, the quiet man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness?
“After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.
“What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? At that time, Northside delivered more than 18,000 babies per year, but that’s not all the Women’s Center does. It’s a full-care facility and handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?
“I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious anguish, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his distress. We too had experienced punctured hearts.
“After that May day, I couldn’t get the silently weeping M & M-eating man out of my mind and brought him up to all who would listen. “What’s the meaning?” I’d ask, never receiving a satisfactory answer. No one seemed to understand the gravity the scene held for me, and I gave up looking for significance when someone glibly suggested a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
“Two years later, as I breezed by the waiting area filled with another set of people awaiting news, I paused for a moment and remembered the candy man whose memory continued to haunt me. What was he doing on this March evening? Had his tears dried? If we’d been sitting together in one of the seating areas tonight, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?
“I think he’d remind me that while there is suffering, there is also joy. Maybe pain serves to make us more aware of life’s exquisite sweetness.
“Turning away, I hastened along a maze of corridors until I found Amanda’s room. Anxious to see Ethan, I pushed the door open and saw him stretched out on a small table, all 8 pounds, 9 ounces of him. My son was leaning over him, gently speaking to the baby. After touching Ethan’s warm, velvety face, I turned my attention to Amanda, the lovely and tired young mother. Her labor had been long and arduous, and across the room lay a perfect child. There was that juxtaposition again, pain and happiness.
“Soon, a nurse came in and gave the infant a bath, put drops in his eyes, and dressed him. Wailing loudly, Ethan let everyone know that he did not enjoy this treatment. His life had been so much more comfortable within his mother’s womb. Nevertheless, the nurse’s actions were vital, as was his screaming, painful entrance into the world. Moments later, the little one was cradled in his mother’s arms, calm and asleep, his tiny ear pressed against her heart.”