At the end of a year and the beginning of another, emotions tend to run high.
Whether it be the loss of a loved one or the tangled web of interactions with relatives, an unexpected illness or travel plan glitches, wonderful moments to cherish, or joyful connections – all are wrapped up like presents topped with emotional bows.
The opening and unraveling part often takes courage and creativity.
This is a series of three short vignettes involving emotions and circumstances, fitting for the changing of seasons and the passing of time.
Part one: empathy
A couple of years ago, during a previously unusual snowstorm in Seattle, I was carefully driving home from work in sub-freezing temperatures. I had seen many patients who braved dangerous travel that day to get medical care from me and was satisfied that I could be of help.
On my snow route home, I got off the main road to stop and wait for a light to turn green before crossing the overpass to get to the icy side streets that led to my home just a mile away.
A man was holding a cardboard sign with a scrawled plea for help. He had a coat on, hood up, partly protected from the dense snow that was blowing everywhere.
As he approached my car, I hastily grabbed a $20 bill from my purse and rolled my window down, the sudden icy cold wind rushing into my warm car. His face lit up when he saw my gesture, and he came close by.
I held out my offering. He reached out, and our fingers touched for a brief moment. He was not wearing gloves, and I had taken mine off to get into my wallet.
My breathing stopped as I saw his hands. All ten fingers were shriveled and had turned black.
I looked up at his face, and our eyes met. That moment seemed like an eternity but lasted only a few seconds. His expression of thanks was almost imperceptible.
Our interaction was abruptly halted as the light turned green, and I had to drive on.
I turned onto the overpass and drove two blocks further. I then pulled over, knowing that I was risking getting stuck as I pulled off the road into deeper snow next to the hidden curb.
My tears flowed, and I couldn’t stop crying long enough to continue driving. I could only think of the next 24 hours in this man’s life, hoping that someone would find him if he fell or lay down.
I hoped that he would be taken by ambulance to Harborview ER, our region’s Level 1 trauma center. I thought of the amputations that needed to happen. I wondered if he would get subsequent care.
I am still moved by the vivid memory of our fingers touching for that brief moment.
Our eyes meet.
The contrast in circumstances.
Food, water, and shelter are essential for human life.
Part two: joy
I never thought I’d be a Navy mom.
Never, in even my wildest dreams.
My daughter is now serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy, and I couldn’t be more proud!
For Christmas this year, we paid for pricey plane tickets to fly her home for ten days. She sent screenshots of her itinerary through Atlanta to Seattle, with a return trip via Detroit.
As always seems to happen every end-of-year, a lot of tasks get scrunched together. I was balancing the books for my new business, seeing a final few patients before my vacation, and thinking about last-minute gifts, which seemed to be my usual modus operandi.
Mixed into the final frenzied weeks, I had a number of personal medical appointments, blood tests, diagnostic imaging, and consultations. My daughter was following along via texts and hoping my upcoming weekend – the one before her arrival – would be restful.
I finally made time for the Christmas tree outing (see part three for the story!), and she laughed at the naked tree picture I texted. I hoped I would have time to decorate before she came.
Two days before her arrival, I finally finished decorating the tree, hanging up the stockings, arranging holiday cards, and taking pictures to text her. She called, and I dashed to get my phone which was in another room.
She said, “Go check the front porch. There is a present for you.”
I eagerly opened the door.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a delivery service marked a package as delivered when it hadn’t yet arrived.
I went back inside, still on the phone, and said there was nothing there.
She said, “Go look again.”
And there she was – running on the sidewalk, still on her phone with a huge smile, up our steep sets of stairs in a flash and into my arms for the biggest hug ever!
Two days early.
The perfect present.
I couldn’t stop crying,
Tears of joy.
Part three: humor
Have you ever noticed the frequency of certain numbers, letters, or words?
Sometimes I find it fun to notice alliteration in everyday events – often afterward. Or, maybe by focusing on something, I see more of it? Our brains are truly wondrous.
In the past almost thirty years of being a physician, many of my patients and most of my staff called me “Dr. B.” Saying “B” is so much easier than pronouncing my last name!
Along the way, I’ve learned a few B words from my daughter, who is in her twenties.
I gifted her my 2004 Honda CRV, which she promptly named Beatrice. Beatrice is still doing well, now past 100,000 miles.
My late beloved rescue cat came pre-named: Buttercup – yes, named after Robin Wright’s character Buttercup from The Princess Bride.
Apparently, I have a bougie car – and here I thought cars in that category would be BMWs, Mercedes, et al. (I have an Audi Q3).
I have learned that a Navy ship, an iffy hotel, and my body all can be described as busted.
OK, I have never named my car, but we call that rather large spider in the corner of our garage Brad.
I have just recently learned that bussin refers to food that is so f*ckin good.
What is really fun is when some of these words all come together in one place – like when I went to get our Christmas tree this year.
I arrived alone at Donna’s Trees, set up in the side parking lot of a nearby golf driving range and nine-hole course. I was the only one there, browsing around and looking at trees.
When did they get so expensive? I typically go for a seven-foot Noble fir, but they were all in the $220+ price range.
I was drawn to a certain tree, but it didn’t look so great. A number of branches had tips that were dried and less than green.
The friendly farmer-type young man approached and asked me if I had picked out my tree. I said yes, but he then said, “You don’t sound so sure.”
I explained that I didn’t have my assistant with me and this was the first time in a while I had picked out a tree by myself. I explained that my assistant was in the US Navy and was coming home for Christmas.
He quickly became more attentive and then asked if I wanted him to hold out a specific tree to take a better look. I pointed to the one, and he took it for a twirl.
I said, “It looks busted.” He said, “Well, sometimes the trees on the edge of the orchard don’t do so well.”
I asked if he’d cut me a deal. Without hesitation, he offered me $80 off. I felt like this one was about to go to the wood chipper soon, but I said yes.
He happily cut the end, trimmed a few straggling lower branches, and then asked which car was mine. I said that my previous car – now named Beatrice – was the tree car, but since I no longer owned it, I wanted the tree loaded up on top of my Audi.
He chuckled and told me about three “kids” buying a tree earlier that day using their parent’s bougie car – I think it was a BMW. We then wondered why a certain generation names their cars.
I told him I didn’t name my car, but we had a spider in our garage named Brad. We then had a funny discussion about spiders. He made sure to put the tree in the “shaker” to shake out the old needles – I told him I appreciated him shaking out the spiders.
Once home, I lugged the tree up our steep front stairs (yay, core and upper arm strength!) and settled the tree into the tree holder in the living room. My husband asked me if they were out of trees – cue the story of the busted tree that was $80 off.
I later told this story to my daughter, who had a good laugh and was amazed I had used my new vocabulary!
She subsequently made The Best Lemon Cookies which were definitely bussin.
I smiled as I stood in our kitchen, looking through the window at my bird bath with the juncos taking turns bathing.
A whimsical week.
Susan J. Baumgaertel is an internal medicine physician.