Working in the developmental and behavioral pediatrics unit in a children’s hospital, you meet all sorts of people on a daily basis. Yes, I am talking about the clients I see, including the girl who thinks she’s a dog and the one who licks clocks. Yes, I’m talking about the parents I see, who are sometimes more “out there” than their kids, but I’m also talking about the other people. The woman in the café who calls me “sweetie.” The gruff security guard who almost smiles as he warns me daily, “don’t you go making any trouble today, young lady.” The kid in the elevator who informed me that his brother has autism. The young man with Down Syndrome who held the door to the clinic for me. The random child who runs up and hugs me, drooling all over my shirt, face filled with joy that he is seeing someone new, and he needs to hug and feel and smell so he can get to know this new human being walking by. That child’s grandfather, a wrinkled, tired man who lets his grandson hug me, and makes no attempt to help me untangle myself from the boy's strong, 12 year old grasp.
Today, there are two stories.
1.) I pass the woman who cleans the bathroom and floors several times a day. I start out my day on floor 1 for a few hours, then go to 6, then down to 3, then sometimes up to 5, then back to 6. Sometimes, I feel like I am following her around. She is serious, hard-working, and slow-moving. She always seems tired. She pushes a big cart around, up and down the elevators, around all the floors, and works around clinicians, doctors, therapists, clients, and parents. As much as we see inside the clinic rooms, I am sure she sees as much if not more outside of them. Walking down the hall today, I saw her for around the 18th time. I smiled, as I usually do, and met her eyes. “Hello again,” I said.
“Hey,” she said, stopping me. “Why you always smilin’? I always see you and you always smilin’.” She chuckled. “You must be pretty happy to be smilin’ that much.”
I paused, blushed, and giggled nervously. “Oh I dunno…frowning takes more energy, I hear,” I said.
“Yeah, but you smile ALL the time,” she insisted. “Even when I see you with those little tiny screamin’ kids you smile at ‘em all gentle like while they cryin’. I always think ‘there that smilin’ girl again,’” she shook her head, as if she was completely baffled.
I laughed. “Sometimes,” I said truthfully, “the only thing I can think to do is smile.”
“Alright then,” she said, moving her cart forward. “You have a good day.”
“You too,” I answered. “Thank you for everything you do.” She went her way and I went mine.
2.) Waiting for the elevator on one of my 500 trips up and down it today, I found myself waiting with a hospital employee who uses a wheelchair. I have seen him before, although where he works or what he does, I couldn’t tell you. He sighed heavily, twice, as we waited for the elevator. The elevator arrived and I held the door as he got on, asked him what floor, and pressed 5 for him and 6 for myself. He sighed again as the doors closed.
“Some days,” he said, not looking at me, but staring straight ahead, “the only success you have is getting out of bed in the morning.”
“I hear you,” I said. “Some days, I think that has to be enough. Some days, just getting out of bed is success enough.”
He paused, thinking, then laughed and looked at me, smiling. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that’s right.” He paused, again, seeming to mull over this concept. The elevator stopped, and he looked at me again, grinning. “Have a good one,” he added lightly, still chuckling, as he wheeled out of the elevator.
These stories are mere moments in my day. Why do I bother telling them?
I guess they are moments of connection. Moments in which I was surprised by the simple, beautiful, honest humanity in perfect strangers who reached out and made the connection. Moments in which I was able to reciprocate that connection and come away feeling…something. I’m not quite sure what.
The past two weeks have taken me back to a very difficult time, and I have been faced with some decisions and situations that have brought up a lot of “stuff.” I have not felt like smiling. Most days, I wake having slept only a handful of hours, if that, and I don’t want to get out of bed. It takes work to smile. It takes work to get out of bed. But I do.
And then, it all got the better of me and I messed up. I realize I am my own harshest critic, but I wasn’t going to let up with this one. I had failed. Now everyone will know how _________ (fill in any negative descriptor here) I really am. Now I will prove to everyone who already believes those things that they are right.
I have been trying to figure out for myself what “courage” is. What “bravery” is. What “strength” is. I tell myself I need to be these things: that if I was just braver, stronger, smarter, better…things would be different. Then I would be okay.
Then, I learn for a moment how other people see me. I am “that girl with the screaming kids who is always smiling.” I am the woman in the elevator who made someone smile. I realize then that, maybe, in others’ eyes, I am okay. Maybe, just smiling and getting out of bed in the morning is enough. Maybe that is even a measure of success. Maybe.
I know that, if a client or a friend were in my shoes, I would tell them “yes. There is no doubt. You are brave. You are strong. You are beautiful and amazing, and your actions reflect what is brave and strong and beautiful and amazing in you.” But this is me we’re talking about, and I’m different. I’m good at making every situation seem like a double-bind: damned if I do, damned if I don’t, so I never win. I change the rules of the game as I play so that what I do is never enough. No matter which path I choose, I am making a choice that proves in some way that I am indeed not strong. Not brave. Not beautiful, and certainly not amazing.
But then I come up against these little stories, and I can’t figure out where they fit. It makes it feel like, perhaps, it is the little stories just as much as the big ones that should inform our lives. Perhaps the little stories, the quiet moments that slip by, the smiles we give, mean just as much as the stories that shake us and change the very root of who we are. In a world where it feels to me so very few people are to be trusted, perhaps it is the moments we share with utter strangers that mean more: the people who are not invested in our smiling, our getting out of bed, the self we share with the world. What a bind it is to not trust the world and to live in it. To not trust people, but to need to rely on them, as we all do. To love people, and to try to shut them out of your heart. It’s impossible. These little stories with strangers let me know this.
The other evening, I took my dog out one last time before bed. It was around 10:30 PM, and my neighbor was outside smoking, with her 4 year old granddaughter running around. It was one of the few warm days we had, and the warmth was lingering into the evening. She was dancing around in the grass in her little pink jacket, jeans with pink hearts, and pink light-up sneakers. I talked to my neighbor, who introduced me to her granddaughter. I crouched down to talk to her while she pet Marshall, and she told me about how she was waiting for her daddy to come get her, because daddy is getting a new house with the new lady that she just met that lives with them. She hugged Marshall around the neck, giggling, while he licked her face. Suddenly, she left Marshall’s side and came over in front of me, looking right in my eyes. She reached out to touch my arm and, as though it were the most common thing in the world, she stated, “you are so beautiful!” She skipped off, twirling under the moonlight.
Perhaps it is the quiet moments with strangers that should move us. Perhaps these small moments should inform us of who we are in the world. Maybe bravery is hearing the small stories, and courage is taking the time to smile. Maybe trust is in the talking, the smiling, the telling, and in the willingness to hear the answer. What if beautiful is not something in us, but is in the small moments of our lives and the way we share those moments with our world? What if amazing is not something we are, but is something we live that manifests in the lives that touch us?
What if the bigger stories, the more important characters in my life, are wrong and the answer is in the 4-year old, the guy in the elevator, the woman who cleans the floors? What then?
Some days, it seems that, maybe, the every day-ness of every day is enough.