This is a rumor, a half truth, the startled turn of a dog’s heavy head when it looks down an empty alley. There must be somethign here – some movement in the words hinting of vitality, some record of significance like a fleetingly glimpsed headline in a newspaper blown down the street, the jottings on a bar napkin of a fact worth remembering. At the very least, perhaps amongst this gossip there is an image nuanced with enough meaning that you dream the same image some day and wake up thinking about the subject of the metaphor. This may only be a shadow but like the tracings of light that are imprinted on your retina when you shut your eyes after looking at the sun, it alludes.
This chronicles a meeting with a man, one whom many supposed to be a very good man, although one should never believe rumors. His was a name known to me, but I could not quite place where I had heard his syllables before: Ihor Szcercera. Ihor Szcercera – a name as rounded as an Orthodox church, steepled with sharp, crossed cononants. I felt sure that if you looked closely at a map of the Ukraine, following the fine blue lines of rivers, you would find somewhere in the topographic typeset some town, some village, some port with that name. Szcercera, printed neatly, locating a people. The name belongs to a place, and the man with that name to that land, and with that name and that man come that place. Ihor du Szcercera. So we are named, to hint of a past we can now only imagine. But digressions make idle chatter boring. More boring.
The name, as I said, was familiar. When I saw him, though, I was sure that I was mistaken, his name simply reminding me of something I had seen on a Ballet programme or a Russian menu. Holding his thin chart, I invited him into a small office where we were ingratiating ourselves with patients one by one, ascribing to them a history simultaneous with their rendition of a version of their own story. That is how we start rumors, plucking choice anecdotes about chest pain and mother’s diabetes from a litany of life’s aches and pains.
He sat back, plump and happy in the hard wooden chair as though such a chair were perfectly formed to make him comfortable. Obviously in reasonably good health, and sure in this knowledge, Ihor Szcercera was not about to satisfy me with a contrived list of symptoms. He just looked at me, smiling, with an odd expressions which, if it were a dog’s, would be described as quizzical. Like a dog in an advertisement. He was placid.
“What can I do for you today, Mr. Szcercera?” His eyes – they were odd. In such a content face, his eyes were the eyes of a gaunt man. The pale, blue irises were staring and hungry even though he planted above corpulent red checks and under a a swathe of grey hair swept back by a wind I could not feel.
“Nothing, son.” One reads often of portent, because those whom one reads often are often good readers themselves, and they know of the ripeness of a good reading, sugaring mouthfuls of stale berries so that the bland becomes quite sweet. This “nothing” was no dessicated berry. There was in this “nothing” something – not something that I ascribe to it now at a later date, filing in the vacuum of a meaningless, thrown-away comment with a retrospective solidarity, re-envisiging the scene where you pass a skinny, slouched beggar but this time placing a paper bag with your uneaten lunch into his bony hands. The “nothing” made me put my pen down, at a time, with surprise.
“Then can I help you?” His “nothing” was the “nothing” of a person who knew what “nothing” meant. There was, he knew, nothing that I could do for him, and for this he did not begrudge me. There was the implication, the offer of understanding in the inflection of the “nothing,” that I too knew what “nothing” was. I had to ask him if I could do anything for him. He spoke with the rolling vowels of an accent that ascended distant mountains and cascaded into the blue-fogged valleys of a foreign land.
“I wanted to see if I could help you with this clinic. Refer people. I know many people in this community.”
“That would be very helpful. Of course, the more people who know about the clinic, the better.”
The man was a damned priest. I remembered now. A Catholic priest, not Orthodox, and he had been interviewed on the radio; this I had heard. So that was how I knew him, why I remembered his name, and now he had come to help us with the clinic. I left soon after, going elsewhere for some reason that is not worth mentioning, but before I departed, I heard his name several times uttered by patients who had heard from him that we could be of more use to them then he could.
The hospital at night is quiet, the palpable silence between an orchestra’s movements, a menacing pause, nothingness bracketed. Nurses whisper, bleary with the discomfiting brightness of the lights and the soporific aura of waiting; students and residents sleep, or sit fidgeting in anticipation of a problem tonight or a resolving surgery, profound results tomorrow. A few of the more impatient students and soem bored residents look for patients’ charts which are fingered and checked, sometimes read, a careless amble through shorthand notation scrawled on pages with the wild loops and bristling illegibility of a weed garden.
In these slow times, when not sleeping or slack-jawed in front of a television, the doctors look for hints and gestures towards a narrative of disease, waking the patients before dawn with the firm push of fingers on flesh and the tight velcro squeeze of a blood pressure cuff, teh exegesis of illness. Working at night and waiting, waiting for the heavy morning light and a parade of confidence down these dull halls. This is downtime. This is where something must be made of nothing.
These medical friends and colleagues of mine are, if I may whisper this rumor, the choicest birds. Their feathers may sag from a drenching drizzle of mortality, but the colors shine through. The angels amongst them, meek doves amidst the peacocks, are so easy to notice, because when they touch a patient that patient moves towards them with an instinctive thirst for the compassion on offer. The nurses and therapists and doctors with the brashest tails, always flapping their wings to draw attention to their work or to ensure that you know their sarcasm is merited because you are so certainly taking up their precious time, I would say now that they too are delightful birds, even when , after a long night without sleep, cannot stand the sight of them. Who doesn’t love the gaudy rooster or obnoxious parrot? But what would rumors be without names: L—– P——, do you recognize yourself? Angel or fallen angel?
What do we – birds, angels, mutts – do in the hospital? Nothing. That is a well-kept secret although rumors abound. Perhaps the peacocks with the fullest feathers, shimmering purple eyes on a shivering brown fan, know best that their displays are but a grand show.
On one quiet night, I picked up a file I had been directed to by a nurse. Sitting at a pale brown desk, I adjusted the light so that it did not blind me in the dark room. The file was thick, a whole novel to peruse, characters to meet, plot twists and turns, double-guessing tests and impending results, a thriller with more readers than heroes. White, 68 yo Male, presents with….
And so, our paths crossed again, and once again there was nothing I could do for the Catholic priest.
In the morning, after the flourish and formality of rounds, I went in to see him. He remembered me from the year before. Perhaps during that year he had met somebody who reminded him of me, or perhaps some minor character in the Bible made him sit back, tap his front teeth with a pen, and say to himself, “Where did I meet somebody like that? What did I say to him?” I sat down on the chair next to his bed, and was about to start asking him how he was, the rote and rules of the latex catechism, when he waved his hand at me to shut up.
“Are you married?” the dying man asked me, his eyes greyed over.
“I am divorced.”
“You know why I ask?”
Yes. Yes I did.
The desire to confess is the pathology of the soul, a creeping illness which presents as a humble, meek bruise, but is, underneath, a raging hemorrhage of egocentricity. And it is a contagious condition. But just as he would not expect a parishioner to refrain from confessing in the confessional, so he could not expect that on his death bed I would be unwilling to hear him expiate himself, as he atoned for his sins with the incense of disinfectant in our noses, the fresh white sheets pure up to his neck. I folded his thick chart on my knees. “Tell me,” I said. Tell me nothing, and we’ll make something of it. He looked up at the ceiling and maybe further up to God.
“I was in love, like any man might be, with a woman. This was not long ago either, though you might think me a little old for this sort of thing. She was beautiful in a way you might not understand, and why would you? Beauty, it seems, is often what is innocuous. What do you get when you have a person with a nose that is neither too big nor too small, a jaw that doesn’t recede or jut, a mouth that is plump without being too big, eyes that are not too close together or too far apart? A model, a statue, something that is harmless enough that most people would see it as beautiful because they can’t find anything wrong with it. Most of what we take for beauty is the absence of imposition.” He coughed, perhaps more from self-consciousness than congestion although this interpretation seemed unfaithful to the brute honesty of his revelation. He continued. “Real beauty is wearing your ugliness well. She, this woman, was beautiful, and I fell in love with her. Nothing happened, I suppose you would say. Nothing was consummated. There was nothing between us, except for my love for her and, I think, her love for me. We didn’t talk about it and perhaps if we had I would not have sinned. If we had talked about or acted on our feelings, then there would be something to repent, and the feelings I had would have been exorcised. We fell in love, and I fell out of love with God, because there is room in the heart only for one other. You think a hospital room is small? It fits two patients, a doctor, three residents and five medical students. Look at my heart!”
“We are all fallible,” I tried. “If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a God.” Theology is God’s trick on mankind.
Szcercera smiled at me, and then laughed weakly. “Thank you. Thank you. We understand each other, you and I. And you keep giving to me, and I, what do I give you, except a job? Don’t answer. But think about this: everything has a price, everything costs, even your thoughts. If your thoughts are of death, what of your life? Breathe life with your thoughts….I don’t know. I don’t know even what to tell you. Is there any wisdom left for me to impart?”
I was honest. “Not any more.” There was nothing left to say.
He smiled, looking at the ceiling with those gaunt eyes in a face now cachexic. “I hope you will be redeemed. What news do you have for me? What understanding of this illness can you impart? What of my future?”
“Your prognosis is good, Father.”
His eyes, creased with smiles, focused on mine. “It is?”
“Yes, it is. You’ll be in Heaven soon.”