Turns out I'm anemic.
As in, I have anemia. When I mention this, true friends will retort, "Yeah, you've been anemic for as long as we've known you." Ha ha. (Assholes.) That's because a true friend is comfortable enough to make fun of you; it's the always-polite ones you have to wonder about. But that's not where I'm going with this.
Apparently anemia is rare in males, and when it occurs, doctors want to figure out why. You get a phone call from your physician ("I want to run some tests"), hang up, try to finish what you were working on, and discover that you can't. That it was futile to even try. That hearing those particular words, spoken by that particular figure (no matter how calm and nonthreatening his tone), gets you thinking about a small truth that you'd much rather suppress: You are one day going to die. And it might be closer than you think.
In that frame of mind, what am I going to do, keep writing some banal report? And so I find myself, in the middle of what had been an otherwise ordinary workday, spending the afternoon in a medical clinic. Which is, whether by accident or by design, a perfect fishbowl for people-watching.
Sitting in the waiting room, I'm half playing FreeCell solitaire on my phone, half eavesdropping on the elderly couple next to me. The husband has on a pair of shoes that he rarely wears, although he can't imagine why not, they're sure comfortable enough. The last pair he bought was too small--seven and a half--but he needs an eight, so he's going to return them. And on and on. It's mundane and yet significant. And then it occurs to me: When I'm an old man, how could I want more than this? To sit beside my wife, holding her hand, talking about nothing. And everything.
From down the hall I can hear a baby crying. It's a desperate, piercing cry, and I know with a parent's instinct that the child just got a shot (or, more likely, shots). The pain she's feeling is insignificant in the overall scheme of her life--fourteen or so years from now, the betrayal of friends will hurt so much more, for so much longer--but she can't know that right now.
And then I'm called in to the x-ray room. The x-ray antechamber, to be more precise. For reasons I can't fathom, before earning the privacy of an actual room (read: has four solid walls and a door), patients must disrobe and change into hospital gowns in narrow stalls, which are really just alcoves separated from the hallway by a thin, not-quite-floor-to-ceiling curtain. Unisex dressing rooms at The Gap offer more discretion than this setup.
No one instructs me to disrobe, and I don't volunteer. Instead, I'm seated in one of the chairs lining the wall perhaps six feet from the changing stalls.
In the time that I'm sitting there, four different women are marched through the process by nurses: Pull the curtain, undress completely (including undergarments), don the gown and come sit next to this squirming gentleman until the radiologist calls you.
I can't see the discomfort on the women's faces because I'm staring fixedly at a placard on the wall ("The use of cellular phones in this area is strictly prohibited"), but I can feel it just the same. It's palpable, even without eye contact. Their body language, glimpsed peripherally, seems timid and guarded. And I realize that the already unsettling reality of being here--of having a condition that's who the hell knows what, but it's enough to warrant tests--is, for them, multiplied by the vulnerability of the changing-in-the-hallway experience.
By the fourth seatmate I start to wonder, at what point am I so intently not looking at the woman in the gown that the not looking goes from courteous to rude? Awkward or not, this is another person here with me. We're sharing, while pretending not to, this weird but inevitable mixture of angst and uncertainty (it's only an x-ray, but what if...).
Not to acknowledge her in any way goes against every human instinct in me. So maybe I should. Just a little gesture. A quick, sympathetic smile.
And that's when my name is called, my tests are run, and I'm finished.
Those tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary--no sinister underlying causes. I'd like to tell you that upon hearing this news I was flush with gratitude and a renewed zest for life, but there's no "bucket list" at the end of this story. Life goes on as normal (now with iron supplements), and it's comforting to flow back into routine. Go to work, shop for groceries, do laundry, pick up our kids' toys strewn about the house. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Still, I find myself thinking a lot about that afternoon, the people who were there with me, and the emotions we experienced--separately but together, side-by-side but isolated.
Only later does the epiphany sink in.
There are two things we all long for when we're hurting and afraid: to know that someone cares, and to believe that everything's going to be okay.
Built environments can't provide that. Nor can organizations or institutions. People can. Human empathy and comfort are irreplaceable, especially when our environments and systems strip those things out.
I regret not offering that smile.
About the author:
Greg Fuson is a husband, dad, avid reader, blogger (http://thevinespeaks.com), optimist and curious observer of the small but significant things that move people deeply. He is a conference organizer who for eighteen years has designed events infused with art, drama, emotion and entertainment. "Because a few months later the participants won't remember specifically what you told them," he says, "but they'll recall with perfect clarity how you made them feel." Greg lives in Sacramento, CA, with his wife, two young children and a golden retriever who believes he's a person and is, in fact, their "first child."