By Monica Slubicki
I used to be afraid of the relief in your eyes when you saw me. I thought I knew that you were relieved that I had come with answers. But I didn't have the answers you wanted. As I navigated my way through the madness of my medical training, I was maturing with more knowledge and responsibility and confidence. But every time I saw you, the more I knew, the less I wanted to tell you. The closer I came to the sharp edges of the hurdles I thought you couldn't overcome, the less I wanted to see your eyes. I wanted to run away from that relief in your eyes. Because I was afraid you could not clear the hurdles, and I did not want to watch you bleed.
Today, on a Sunday afternoon, I see you from the back as I approach your room. Your back is twisted from scoliosis and damaged nerves, but your swinging arm, the one made lifeless by birth injury, lends beauty and balance to your outline. I do not like to approach you from behind, as you, like me, startle easily. Your deafness makes it more difficult for me to warn that I approach, and so I wait until you have eased yourself into your wheelchair by the television. And then you turn, and your eyes meet mine.
Initially it is surprise in your eyes when you see me, and I always feel guilty in that instant. In that second I wish I had found more hours to visit, and that our times together were not limited to weekly conversations in your nursing home, and snatches of e-mails that I know you hammer out slowly, painfully, carefully, with precision and with love. In that moment I realize how important it is to you that I appear there, in your doorway, week after week.
After surprise, there comes the relief in your eyes, and you start to ask me questions. Now I feel trapped and my heart is loud in my ears as you ask me to share what I know. Can I lie to you? I feel as if I must, for I love you so much. I feel that I must lie to you and that I must fill you with hope. But I do not. As always, I try to bring the truth. I cannot be weakened by my love for this person, I tell myself. I must be strong - I am almost a doctor. I am still a medical student but you look to me as if I wear the long white coat. There is relief in your eyes as you look at me and I begin to speak.
"Am I an old man?" you ask me today. Your eyes look to me for answers. "I am over 80 years old," you say. "I used to play golf. I used to drive a car. I used to ride a motorcycle. I used to live in my own apartment. Am I an old man?"
And so I try what I believe to be truth. "Well, it is okay to grow old," I explain - hands spread wide in one of those gestures that says absolutely nothing, and I shrug my shoulders instead of giving more details. I love the way that my facial expressions can become more expansive with our conversations, as I try to act out the emotions and the meanings. Sometimes I can communicate exactly what I want to say this way, with a level of precision I don't always find in the English language. But other times, I can hide in the ambiguity that my body and my face's expressions allow. You do not always seem to sense when I give incomplete responses.
I am mouthing the words of course. You are an expert lip-reader, which means you can get about 70% of what I say if I speak slowly and enunciate carefully. Now I realize I have started to yell. I have to catch myself on this, but it is a reflex. It really doesn't matter if I speak out loud at all, but still my body belts out words when we are talking. I wonder what your neighbors think of this visiting medical student friend who is yelling to a deaf man?
"It is okay that you can't do everything you used to do," I offer again. Then, a cheap attempt at distraction. "Hey, what have you been watching on the television?" I point towards the television, as if it can replace golf and driving and independence.
"I have been back to the brace makers," you explain. You motion for me to bring the receipt from your latest doctor appointment, and the calendar where you list your next one. And you look to me for my opinion. "I have a new plan to straighten my back," you explain. I try not to look at your back when you say this. Your back is curved so much that it is only with the swinging arm and slow, painful steps that you can stand upright without falling. You have lost ability to sit, walk, even lie, without pain. But you do not accept these limitations. You do not see sharp hurdles and you are not wounded from your attempts to move forward.
The relief in your eyes is still there. You are waiting for my answers, and I am afraid. You are waiting for my reassurance. But I continue to try to confront you. "Well, I don't know if you will be able to walk without pain. But look at this wheelchair! It is a fine wheelchair!" I try to convince you how wonderful a wheelchair can be. I am not so convincing.
You continue. "Do you think I look like I have gained weight? What is this water and fluid in my legs?" I explain the way the heart works. "When will I feel better? I have been taking these medicines. Here, let me get a list for you." You stand up successfully on the third try. The first two tries you are swinging your body to gather enough momentum to lift from the chair. You return with the list.
"Is this a good list?" you ask me, now. "Do you think I will be better soon?" I can feel your eyes on my lips as I run my fingers down the list. I try to explain the importance of each medication, and you seem satisfied. Are you satisfied? You lean back in your chair and point to me with your one strong hand now. "You are almost a doctor! How much longer now?" You look to my fingers as I count off the months remaining. You smile and you are proud of me. This makes me feel better and worse at the same time.
You have spent your entire life helping other people. You have adored and cared for your disabled wife for forty years. You have studied in hospitals for the disabled. You have worked as an illustrator helping those designing prosthetic limbs. With one functional hand you have painted away pain and you have illustrated solutions and hope for others. And your appetite for perfection is insatiable. In this way we are similar, and I understand your questions as you reach out to me.
You look to me, with your eyes full of relief that I have come.
And so we continue, and I try to help you. And you help me. You ask about my school and my husband and your eyes - pure blue like a naked ocean emptied of its fish, seaweed, nets - are still full of relief. I explain how hard I want to work at school, how tired I am sometimes. You marvel at what I do and you make me understand how much I have already accomplished. And you make me want to accomplish more.
When I finally have to leave, I explain I will return, and you give me kisses on my cheek. You reach out for me with one arm and you hold me close. You tremble in this moment; we both do. We are separated by age and by physical differences but we understand each other. I can feel your whiskers; they are prickly against my face.
I am always uncomfortable leaving because I never feel I have made you understand the truth I am supposed to bring to you. I am supposed to bring you answers. I am supposed to tell you that you can relax now, that you must give up your dreams of walking without pain, that you must embrace aging and being old, and, eventually....death. I am supposed to make you understand that it is okay to give up.
Today, on this Sunday afternoon, I have not fully met this challenge and now I stare at the floor in sadness as I walk away. But then I turn, and I look at you one more time, and I smile. In that moment I realize how important it is to me that I appear there, in your doorway, week after week. You are defiant and you are hopeful and this love of life and this optimism shines from your eyes without apology. And I see that your eyes are full of relief. And I am no longer afraid as I realize that I am the one who has found the answers.