The 3:15 bell sounds as rosy as the church bell downtown at noon. It had been one of those days that had me leafing through the calendar to count down the days until Thanksgiving break. During first period, Kaden, the class clown, had decided to wedge a handful of Crayolas into the classroom radiator. The pungent smell of melting wax invaded the room. Before I could get all the kids back into their seats, Mrs. O’Brien, a veteran teacher, crowed for the janitor to investigate the source of the nasty stench that had quickly wafted across the hallway. I often feel Mrs. O’Brien underestimates my ability to care for my own classroom matters. So, not only were the Granny Smith Apple, Periwinkle, and Licorice crayons melting, my patience was as well.
After recess, when I attempted to engage the kids in an upbeat reading of a chapter from Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse, countless paper airplanes whizzed overhead, challenging the outgoing flight number from Baltimore International on any given day. Then, during math, multiplying exponents got Rose so frustrated her chocolate eyes overflowed with tears that oddly became contagious to all her surrounding classmates. Exasperated, I gave a simple assignment, incorporating some inspiration from the season. I asked the students to get together in groups and write about the things they are most thankful for. I had my doubts, unless one of them was anxious for brownie points, that anything would be mentioned about being thankful for education or teachers. Sometimes it seems that any last impressions I could have on students are left behind with the countless mittens and scarves abandoned in the classroom closet. Regardless, the assignment was enough to get us through until the end of the day. And I have to admit, I am anxious to read the various responses. Swinging my laptop bag and tote bag over one arm, and tucking my planning books underneath, I lock the classroom door with my free hand and then waltz out into the brisk November evening.
After a quick supper of chef salad with crispy chicken tenders and leftover fries, I sink into the mustard colored couch I’ve had since my college days. I fish out the latest assignments from my tote bag and prop my feet on the coffee table. I think I know what most of the papers will say, but still I’m always surprised at the things young minds come up with on a whim.
“My family, my puppy, my goldfish, my Nike shoes, my mp3 player, my PSII, my Wii, my grandparents…” Again and again, these responses show up. I’m not surprised. But then, a phrase from Tia, an introverted girl in my 2nd period, catches my eye. She is thankful for “strangers that help me –the firefighter that fills my swimming pool for summer.”
The word stranger has never been a very natural concept for me. It just feels odd to label someone by that term. It’s like saying the other person is so peculiar from us that we are ‘normal’ and they are ‘stranger’ somehow. Yet my mind is drawn to the biblical use of the word in Hebrews, where we are admonished, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” In Tia’s case, her stranger comes by once a year to fill the swimming pool, then disappears back into the woodwork of life. Even if her parents know the firefighter, assuming the same one comes each year, to Tia, the man is a stranger. The other 364 days of the year go by without having further connection. He knows nothing about her classes, her teachers, her future ambitions, and she knows nothing about his dreams, his fears, or his family. Seems fair enough then to use the label “stranger” I suppose. More importantly, though, from an eleven year old perspective, it is important for her to be thankful for him. Interesting. I mark Tia’s paper with an ‘A’ and paperclip all the graded papers together. I flip on the T.V. but The Big Bang Theory just isn’t holding my attention tonight.
I end up dialing up my best friend back home. She fills me in on her recent internship at a local hospital. She tells me all the ups and downs of the job, and I tell her about the crazy day I had. She says her patients flash into her mind in the wee hours of the morning or at spontaneous moments of the day. Conversely, she feels some of the other nurses only have dollar signs in their brains more often than not. Finally, we hang up, and I drag myself up the steps to bed. Sleep, I thought, would come easily. Yet here I am, tossing and turning, sleep is evading me. Tia’s words are still fresh in my mind. Through all my experiences and my education, how did I never think of that before? Most people drive past construction workers every day, rather recklessly I might add, and probably never once consider being thankful for their work. I’ve never really thought to be thankful for the polite teller at the bank that processes my transactions. Can’t say I have ever been overly filled with gratitude for the waitress that brings my Saturday evening dinner either. Still, it gets more complicated than that.
With thoughts racing towards a checkered flag, I know I won’t fall asleep too soon, so I flip open my laptop and the blue glow illuminates the room. Hesitantly, I type the name into the Google search box. Part of me wants to brush aside the computer, laugh off the thought, and forget the subject entirely. Yet, curiosity gnaws at me and I find myself clicking the search button. Right away the results start flooding in. The first result, I’m almost certain, is the right one. Dr. Desmond K. Owens. There’s even an accompanying picture. For a long time I just study the picture. An intellectual, sophisticated looking character with peppered gray hair and a somewhat crooked yet pleasant grin. The description under the image confirms his current hometown is some two thousand miles away. I’m surprised to see the latest age update places him at sixty four. The description also boasts of thirty five years of experience. Seems funny to think that I am a statistic that constitutes that experience.
You see, just a bit more than two decades ago, I met Dr. Owens. I don’t remember. At the time, the only faces I recognized for sure were my mom, my dad, my big sissy, probably my Grandma, and the scruffy face of my beloved stuffed bunny, Rags. To this day, I’m not certain how long Dr. Owens was a part of my life. What I do know is that our paths crossed, and my life has never been the same. All the while, if I passed him on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. Over the years, I’ve pondered about the doctor that helped save my life. I’ve wondered what I’d say to the person whose hands were the tangible instruments of God.
I’d like to ask him what it was like for him. Before he started, did he bow his head in prayer or was it more like rolling dice? Did he feel sure my childhood story would have a sequel or did he think about it twice? When he saw the shabby hospital gown swallowing up my tiny frame, did he think I’d ever make it to the day I’d wear a graduation gown? Over all the nurses talking and the machines incremented beeps, did he feel his own heart pounding, as the anesthesia ushered me to sleep? Did he memorize the portrait of my family all intact, to the point that keeping it that way became a silent pact? What was it like to realize the fragility of life? To hold the scalpel and scissors cutting like a knife?
The photograph on the webpage is just a static view. I can’t tell if he would have simultaneously opened his heart up that day too. I can’t sense if all of his experiences have made him cherish life a little more. I can’t see if the pressure has aged him or if he adjusted well. I wonder if his hands tremble beneath the blue latex gloves. In the past or present has he questioned his knowledge or his skills? In all the patients he has treated, does he remember them all? Does he ever think about where they are now? Does he…
Chiding myself for staying up so late, I slowly close the laptop and scoot it across the floor.
The alarm blasts me out of my shallow sleep. It’s off to school again. As I shower and gulp down cinnamon oatmeal I’m wondering what Dr. Owens had for breakfast. I wonder what his agenda looks like for today. I grab all my materials and zip through traffic to work. All morning I still keep wondering if Dr. Owens is in the midst of a critical surgery. Can he smell death knocking at the door? A smell much more repulsive than melted crayons for sure. So far my day is going well. It’s Thursday and a week from today is Thanksgiving. I’ve just assigned the kids another journal entry and by the sound of graphite meeting paper, I know they’re engrossed in the prompt. Taking advantage of the ‘free time,’ I pull out my own piece of paper. I have my own journal entry to write.
“Dear Dr. Owens,
As a man with many obligations I know it is tempting to discard this letter in favor of more pressing issues. I respect that, but I am simply requesting a little of your time to tell you a story. Nearly two and a half decades ago, you were a staff member at a hospital in Alexandria. I’m sure you had many patients there, and in your thirty plus years of experience, you’ve had many, many more. Still, I’d like you to know about one girl in particular. She was very young, as were mostly all the pediatric patients. She had corn silk blonde hair and trusting, big blue eyes. On the outside, she giggled and chattered like a typical two year old. Inwardly, she suffered from a congenital heart defect. This is where you came into the picture. As a preferred surgeon, you bore the responsibility of medically fixing the condition. Through the hours of surgery, your skills and knowledge were put to an ultimate test. You didn’t just see the heart rate rise and fall on a screen, you felt it on your palms. You monitored the vitals and called for nurses to bring you the proper tools. Do you remember? That little girl is me.
It’s taken me years to want to research you, to truly care about where you’re at. It’s not that you’ve never crossed my mind, but I think I’ve taken some for granted. No, I don’t give you all the credit for every beat of my heart. I think a lot more things go into the how and why I made it through. But still I’d like to know about your family and about the work you do. It’s been a long time coming, but I’d like to “re-meet” you.
The 3:15 bell chimes out again, signifying the close of another day. Swiftly I tuck the paper in the bottom of my desk drawer. Then I follow the kids outside to the bus pickup and breathe in the November air.