“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I would not say that he was a good friend, but he was a good person, and we got along very well. He was a well-trained medical specialist. When I started my own office he had been in practice for a few years already. He helped me a lot. If he ever saw a patient who did not have a primary care doctor he sent them my way. If I saw a patient in need of his particular expertise, I reciprocated. He worked hard, he was nice to my people, and his results were excellent.
Life had not been kind to him. He was into his third marriage. His children from his previous liaisons gave him a lot of grief. His former wives had no respect for him, and despite his success in practice money was always a concern.
Initially I felt bad for him. For a few years. The more I heard his complaints the deeper became my conviction that maybe he was just not a happy person. The stories I heard about his children sounded very much like what normal, mildly spoiled offspring make their parents go through when they are traumatized by divorce. One should expect former wives to be angry and fixated on money. And it seemed to me that he lived in a nice home and never lacked for anything.
One day we were having lunch in the hospital cafeteria. He was halfway into his usual litany of complaints when Martha walked past our table. Martha was a floor nurse. She was bright, dedicated, careful, and wore a radiant smile 24/7. It is safe to say that every doctor on staff, even those with a sour disposition, admired and appreciated her. This day she was unmistakably pregnant. To my inexperienced eye she looked huge, to the point where she wobbled as she walked, and she was not streaking by as was her habit.
“How are my favorite doctors?” she said.
She waved with one hand as she juggled her tray between her other hand and her tummy. She blew us a kiss, then waved at a few colleagues who were seated at another table.
My friend’s eyes turned dark. It seemed to me that he was angry.
“Look at that woman,” he said. “Look at that woman!”
“Look at that woman!”
He softly banged on the table with his right fist.
“She’s 9 1/2 months pregnant, she can barely move, and she still works every day. She’s always smiling, and she does great work, and she’s sweet and kind to all her patients…”
I know. It’s Martha.
“Tonight, when I get home late, after having worked like a dog all day, I’ll walk into the living room and there will be my wife, three months pregnant, lying down on the couch with a cold towel draped over her forehead. And instead of waving at me, and smiling, and blowing me a kiss, she’s going to raise her right arm and point it to the ceiling. And in a very whiny tone she’ll say (now he begins to talk in a very high pitch): Charlie! I’ve had such a horrible day! Will you please go to the store and get me some ice cream?”
I smiled. I tried to say something about how all pregnancies were different; indeed all women tolerated pregnancy in their own way. He did not let me start.
“And I’m going to say yes dear, I will drag my exhausted body back into my car and drive six miles in sleet and snow so that you can have your ice cream. And look at that woman!”
He banged his fist again, a bit harder this time.
I figured that this cause was lost. I muttered some words of sympathy, took my tray to the dirty china window, and went back to my office.
Twenty years later, by sheer coincidence I met Martha’s husband. I was thrilled to be able to hear about her; how she was doing; how their kids had thrived.
I told him my friend’s story. I told him how much we loved his wife and the work she did.
His eyes watered.
“That’s the way she is,” he said. “That’s the way she is.”
Two men; two wives; two very different stories.
I realize that many people are born under dark stars; that because of circumstances they will never have a fair chance at a happy existence. But I also meet many Charlies. They are missing something; they want only what they don’t have, and even if they reach a goal they never seem to enjoy success that much. I wonder how much Martha’s husband’s joy is due to good luck; how much my friend was derailed by bad people. I suspect nothing.
It’s all about what you make of it.