The Hard Way to Say I Love You

“Imminent death” is not a phrase Nancy Potts takes lightly.  In fact, she is rather bothered by the easy way the doctors look at her and throw around words like “inevitable” and “options,” as though she actually has some.  There had never been an incident of breast cancer in the family before, and by the time she’d had the lump in her chest examined it was about three weeks short of too late. It’s just as well; she’s old, misses her husband, and would rather die than wallow.

“Now Mom…” Jenny starts, like she’s going to say something important, or possibly condescending, but Nancy doesn’t let her finish.  It’s amazing how quickly her children have decided they know what’s best for her, and as much as she’d like to sit back and marvel at the turnaround (and by “marvel” she means “cross her arms and glare”), she’s out of time for this nonsense.

“Don’t ‘Now Mom’ me,” she says with a light flick of her hand.  She looks as though she’s conducting something, which is a good metaphor for the role she’s played for the vast majority of her life.  Motherhood is easily comparable to keeping the brass in line while the strings tune up, except it doesn’t necessarily turn out quite so perfect because you don’t get time to practice.  Just seventy or eighty years to do it properly, and to hope you’ve raised your kids right.

Signs are good, however. Jenny is here along with Nancy’s only granddaughter, Brit, and Nancy’s son has already called her to inform her that he’s leaving his passel of boys with his wife to fly in on Saturday. She may have told both her children they didn’t need to come, but it’s good to know they’re insisting. She must’ve done something right.

Of course, they’re still being ridiculous.

“I am well aware of everything that you are about to say. You said them last night. And this morning.” Nancy is an odd mixture of sharp looks and long features, used to being the tallest woman in the room, but the mild diatribe is partially ruined because she has to look up at her daughter from where she’s been deposited in a wheelchair.  Hospital rules, apparently, and she can only imagine it’s a rule specifically meant to make old people feel much smaller than they are (and/or to keep them from falling down the stairs when they invariably make a break for it).

Jenny sighs loudly, but does not try to “Now Mom” her again.  From over in the corner Brit flicks a plant to check if it’s real, and then glances over at the matriarch of the family, amusement playing in the corners of her full lips.  Brit is seventeen and nearly as tall as her mother, but where Jenny shares Nancy’s late husband’s looks and unhurried temperament, Brit has Nancy’s spit-fire, her short, feathery hair, and terrible fashion sense.  She’s wearing something that looks like it was taken off of a dead rock star, chain-draped vest and all, and Nancy would say something if she hadn’t just realized she’d also worn a vest today, though it’s red and covered with buttons.

Better, though, is the fact that Brit got her grandfather’s sense of humor.

“Now, Grandma…” Brit starts, a smile hiding somewhere in her mouth.

Jenny throws her hands toward the ceiling and says, “Don’t encourage her, Britney.”

“Am I interrupting?” a male voice asks from the door, “Though I suppose you’ve been kept waiting long enough.  Nancy Potts?”

Nancy glances over at the doctor (and she’s right, he is the doctor if the stethoscope, lab coat, and clipboard are any indication), straightens her neck to stick her daughter with a look, and raises an eyebrow.  “Out.”

Jenny’s face sets, mouth flattening into a thin line, and she turns to the medical man standing in the doorway as though Nancy hasn’t spoken. “She’s being stubborn.  We’re trying to talk some sense into her.”

“No,” Brit interrupts, “you’re trying to talk some sense into her.  I’m trying to scope out the blonde on the second floor.”  She grins, pointing upwards to a branch of the hospital that sticks out from the main lobby and can be seen out of Nancy’s window.  Nancy supposes she should be glad they actually put a window in a doctor’s office for the view, but she cranes her neck and still can’t see who Brit is talking about.

The doctor watches her granddaughter for a moment, an unreadable look on his face, before he calmly turns back to his chart.  “I’m no expert, but rumor has it there’s a male nurse on the third floor that the girls at reception are fond of sighing over.”

Nancy realizes she’s going to like this doctor.

Jenny opens her mouth to argue, but the doctor puts up a hand to stop her.  “That was an invitation to leave.” He smiles at Brit, who jumps down from where she’s perched on the examination table (“you don’t need it” she’d told Nancy earlier) and swings her grandmother around so that she’s directly facing the doctor.  Nancy doesn’t scowl but it’s a close thing.  She’s perfectly capable of navigating the wheelchair on her own, thank you.

“If my patient wants privacy, I have to give it to her,” the doctor informs Jenny.  He looks calmly amused, and gives her a “sorry, hospital policy” smile that is somehow both gentle and pointed.

Jenny shakes her head.  “Third floor then, Brit?”

Brit pauses for a moment, and it’s in her face that she’s about to be serious.  Nancy can see her thinking, intelligent eyes alive with it, but doesn’t fully understand her granddaughter’s gravity when she simply says, “Think about us, Gram.”

She gives her grandmother a wave with a sock-covered arm (and yes, it was actually a long sock that had had its toe covering snipped off, she had asked) and flounces out with a jangle of chains.  Jenny finally turns to Nancy, expression, mother like daughter, serious.

“Listen, Mom, I’ll be in the lobby if—“

“I’ll be sure to call you for the hand holding,” Nancy tells her dryly.

Nancy regrets it when Jenny’s eyebrows tighten, though her daughter is quick to smooth out the hurt in her face.  She pauses for a moment at the door, but the second isn’t long enough and Nancy misses her opportunity to apologize.

She realizes, again, that she’s going to like this doctor when he lets the door close with a quiet snick, rolls the chair at the counter to a position directly in front of her, and sits down so that he’s eye level with her.  The clipboard makes a quiet sound as he drops it on the counter and puts out a hand.

“I’m Dr. Atrics,” he smiles.  He has a pleasant smile, white teeth and Colgate perfect, but it’s the fact that he’s not one of those impossibly young looking doctors that she’s seen roaming around this place that makes her smile back at him.  He’s got that tall look, like he has too much elbow and knee for his limbs, but he’s bendy in a grownup way, at the very least approaching his forties with hair that’s creeping away from his original hairline.  There’s something comforting about knowing that age happens to doctors too.

His name hits a chord in her suddenly, and Nancy’s shaking his hand before she feels the frown on her face, pulling the corners of her mouth down while she thinks about that.  “Dr. Atrics of…”

He releases her hand and picks up the clipboard from the counter, bumping a cup of Q-tips, of all things, sitting on the counter.  “Of Geriatrics, yes, I know how it sounds.”  He smiles at his clipboard, then looks back up at her like he’s preparing for the punch line of a joke.  “I’ll give you one guess as to my first name.”

She knows she looks vaguely shocked, but it’s more for form than anything.  “No,” she says, in a voice that tells him to go on.

He doesn’t answer, just presents her with the clipboard, his finger on the doctor’s name slot.  “Dr. Jerome Atrics” is written in bold, black print and underlined, as though it couldn’t believe it either.

“I prefer Jerome,” he says, “but you are more than welcome to call me Jerry. Everyone else does.”

She drops her hand from the clipboard and he places it back in his lap, pen tapping absently on the metal of the clasp.  Nancy shakes her head, conveying her sympathy.  “Oh, you poor, poor man.  I am so sorry.”

Jerry (and he’s right, now she can’t think of calling him anything but Jerry) smiles with his lips closed.  “It’s not as bad as my brother.  Poor Petey.”

She frowns, and has to try it out.  “Petey Atric—” she strikes him with a look that asks him if he’s being serious.

The pen taps hard on the clipboard, making a satisfying clack, and he says, “I’m kidding.  But I knew I had to go into geriatrics or never look myself in the eye again.”

“Hopefully you like old people.”

The doctor rubs the light film of scruff along his jaw.  “I do.  They tell me I’ll turn into one someday.  So—” here, Nancy can tell, he’s decided they’ve put off the present business for long enough, “—Mrs. Potts, I would like to talk—“

“Nancy,” she tells him.

Jerry takes it in stride.  “All right. Nancy.  I’m sure you’re aware of the options you have available—“

Nancy can’t stand conversation that’s going nowhere, so she finishes his thought for him, crossing her arms over her vest.  It’s cold in the doctor’s office, but it’s also the best gesture she can think of to shake him off.  “Mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy, the works,” she drums out, trying to suggest “I am not persuaded” by her tone. “Yes, the last doctor told me as much.  I’m not interested.”

For a brief moment Nancy can see Jerry touch his tongue to the very edge of his teeth, and the absent way he does it makes her suspect it’s a way for him to focus his thoughts.  “Yes.  The last doctor mentioned your…” he hesitates on the word, then goes with, “…reluctance.” (Which is the diplomatic way to put it.) “We may not have caught the cancer as early as we would like—”

She doesn’t want to hear it, doesn’t need to.  “Let it go.  I’m not interested in any ‘options.’”  She speaks the word as though it were distasteful, tone telling him exactly what she thinks of such “options.”

Jerry Atrics, she suspects, had to have developed quite a sense of humor or been beaten to death through elementary school. His tone is flatly wry, but the smile keeps it from being insulting.  “Tell me what you really think.”

Nancy doesn’t shake her head; she tilts it instead to peer at him over her long nose, looking as though she’s simply trying to be polite.  “Get on with the examination then.  See how the rest of my body is holding up.”

For the third time in less than ten minutes, Dr. Atrics places the clipboard on the counter, and it takes her a moment to figure out what is bothering her about the action.  It’s as though he’s putting something else down with it, because his expression changes a little each time he lets go of the list of body parts he’s supposed to check through. The clipboard has always struck her as a cold way to analyze someone, and the thought comes to her abruptly that, maybe, sometimes, doctors think so too.

“Why won’t you consider it?”

He sounds like he honestly wants to know, and it’s this open sincerity that makes her answer, though not completely seriously.  “Because I don’t like the thought of giving you people more money than I have to.”

Jerry glances over at the chart, his eyes skittering until they land on whatever he was searching for.  “Your insurance is excellent.”

Nancy rubs her arms.  “That’s not what I meant.”

Jerry, though she likes him, is as oblivious as any doctor when it comes to the temperature of the rooms he’s in, and he doesn’t notice her discomfort.   “I know.  I can’t say how greatly your chances would improve—figuratively speaking I can’t—” he amends, answering her look, “—Dr. Penn is sensitive about general practitioners guaranteeing his cancer patients certain results—but at the very least you might consider your options. It would make a lot of people very happy.”

Nancy has to take a moment to decide how she’s going to answer, but he doesn’t give her the chance.

“You’re a very independent woman.”

The non-sequiter throws her, but she figures it’ll only take him a moment to follow-up with an explanation.  “I like to think so.”

But he doesn’t.  “What are you afraid of?”

Nancy shakes her head, though it’s not a yes or no, just a “what is this doctor getting at?” sort of gesture.  “Are you a therapist?”

“I sense a certain amount of distaste in the word,” Jerry says, “but no, I’m not.  Not by education.  But it’s generally a bad thing when my patients leave with more emotional trauma than they came with.”

Nancy throws him a bone, and she realizes she can because, though he’s her doctor, he’s also a stranger.  It affords her a certain amount of freedom.  “Fine.  All your ‘options’ leave me helpless.  Weak and sick, and I’ve taken care of this family for a very long time and maybe it’s simply my time to die.”

Jerry shifts his foot to his knee and starts tapping out some sort of rhythm on his thigh. It’s the first time he’s shown any sort of apprehension, if that’s even what it is. “My mother was stubborn.  Like you.  Strong, too. She had to take care of everyone who stepped through her door.”

The old woman doesn’t know exactly how to take that, but she decides to feel at least a little complimented because anyone who talks about their mother with that amount of respect in his voice probably means well.   Dr. Atrics continues on, looking a little past her shoulder as though he’s remembering something, then refocuses on her. “Sometimes it’s someone else’s turn.”

Nancy thinks about that for a moment.  “That made very little sense.”

Jerry gives her his Colgate smile.  “I mean that you – you and my mother and every woman like you – think you need to take care of everyone. Always.  You always have, and you think you always need to. It’s the one certainty that defines you.”

Nancy has gone a little cold, but it’s deeper, somewhere in her breastbone, and because she is occasionally an obtuse sort of person but almost always completely honest, she cannot blame it on the temperature of the room. Jerry, though it wasn’t a question, looks like he’s waiting for an answer.

For the first time she notices the clock in the room, ticking loudly in the silence. She opens her mouth, hesitates, hesitates another second, and then goes for it. “What’s the point?” she demands. “If I’m not needed.”

Jerry’s foot shakes on his knee and he sucks a little air through his teeth, as though he can pull in the right words that way and regurgitate them at her.  He finally puts his foot down, leans forward, and Nancy thinks: Here it comes.

“I heard this once,” he says, “from my pastor actually—” she’s a little surprised, like Christians are supposed to recognize each other from across the room, but it’s not important and she continues to listen “—when he was talking to my mother.  She was ill, had been for awhile, in pain for most of it and feeling worthless.  She asked him what the point was, why she couldn’t just go home.”

Go home, Nancy thinks, is a nice way to put it.  She nods.

Jerry looks at her, and the beautiful dark hazel of his eyes registers. Her husband had eyes like that.  “He said now it was everyone else’s turn to take care of her.  That that was its own kind of serving. One more lesson to teach her children before she’d gone.”  Dr. Atrics sits back in his chair, and she realizes the story is over and now he’s talking to her.  “You’re worth just as much to your family.  You should give them their turn.”

Nancy smiles, and tries to pretend that he hasn’t made her rethink the certainty of her decision, which she rails against on principle.  She’s supposed to be the old, wise one.  “I thought you weren’t a therapist.”

Dr. Jerry Atric’s thin lips pull over his white teeth.  “I’m just a doctor.  And you’re just a stubborn old woman.”

“Oof,” Nancy says.  “Insult me on the way out, why don’t you. Now are you going to examine me, or are you going to salesman talk me into your ‘options’ some more?”

For the first time Jerry looks honestly affronted, as though she has just insulted his honor.  “I’m not asking you to make that decision,” he says.  “Not now, and hopefully not before you give your family the chance to hash it out with you.”

She punctures his innocuous phrase.  “You mean talk me into it.”

He raises his eyebrows at her, as though she’s playing dirty and he just caught her cheating.  “I mean talk about it.”

“You’re not going to examine me until I agree, are you?” she half-demands, half-laughs.  The laughter, however, is hidden under the dryness of her tone, and it’s Jerry who snorts out something like a chuckle as he stands.

“I won’t coerce you.  They tell me it’s illegal.”

Nancy squeezes her crossed arms tighter to her body, trying to warm herself up.  “It’s good to know this country is still making laws that protect me.”

He smiles and picks up a much too thin-looking cloth that had been folded neatly on the counter, offering it to her as he reaches for the clipboard with his other hand.  “Also hospital policy.  I need you to change into the gown so that I can examine you.  I didn’t have you change before because I wanted to talk to you first.  These rooms are freezing.”

For the first time she laughs, accepting the hospital-wear.  “I thought you hadn’t noticed.”

His smile is still on his face, but now it crinkles the corners of his eyes, deepening the pleasant lines in his face that say he likes to be amused.  “I notice a lot of things,” he says.

Nancy puts a hand on the wheelchair arm, knowing she’s going to have to stand up to put this on.  “Don’t get cheeky,” she commands.  Dr. Atrics bows his head at her, either in mock salute or serious agreement, and turns for the door.

Her knees creak and she realizes, suddenly, that she really is stubborn, and settles back into the chair.  Nancy does not want to face plant on the doctor’s floor, proving, once and for all, why they put old people like her in wheelchairs even when they don’t technically need them.  It feels foolish that she can’t easily change into the paper-thin material grasped in her hand, and a part of her wants to prove that she can on her own, which is undoubtedly true.  She’s not that old or that creaky.  But there’s another part that says sometimes she needs to listen, and that she needs to start where she can, while the choice is still hers.

“Dr. Atrics,” she calls out.  He may have told her she could call him Jerry (and she may have been thinking it), but it still feels wrong to be treated by a man called “Jerry,” like he was her plumber. Mind you, now that she’d made the comparison, both jobs did essentially involve the effect of time on pipes and other ductwork. “Wait a moment.”

Jerry pauses, eyebrows lifting up towards his widow’s peak.  “Would you mind asking Jenny—my daughter—” she clarifies “—in here?”  He doesn’t do what she asks, and since his eyebrows are still raised with that dip that seems to signify question, she thinks that maybe he wants to know.

And maybe he deserves it.

“Tell her…” she thinks about it for a moment, but in the next moment her smile is wry.  “Tell her I could use a little help.”

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