A Letter For You
Zackary Sholem Berger
Sarah is always worried sick about money, while I am oblivious. She said, “I know you think we should give a lot more money to charity,” and I agreed. There are a lot of poor people in Baltimore.
She looked at me. “So you can do that,” she said. “Why don’t you take out a little more from your account each week?” “OK,” I responded, feeling good, and then promptly guilty that I had bought fifty or ninety dollars worth of books on Amazon the day before.
The first week after this conversation, I got a hundred dollars from the ATM at the hospital where I work, instead of my usual eighty, and stuck it too hastily into my wallet so that a corner of a bill must have stuck out from my back pocket. “You have money falling out,” said a frowning janitor, and I thanked her, quickly stuffing the corners back in.
That’s when I saw my secretary coming towards me. She always looked like she was thinking about something - not because her gaze was off in the distance, but because her eyes were downcast. She dressed professionally, this slim African American woman in her forties, and she was always asking one of my colleagues for money. The colleague, Ramona, one of the vice presidents of the hospital, didn’t know what to do about it, was conflicted, asked my advice - but always ended up giving her the money she asked for. “She has problems at home,” Ramona told me after each one of these requests, as if it were the first time.
Sophie always looked serious but she never looked like she did then, like she was just crying in a bathroom somewhere. Though my hospital is huge, everyone can know someone else’s business in a hurry if you let them, so I was surprised. I thought she was more tightly wound than that.
“Sophie,” I said, “is everything all right?”
“Something’s the matter with my son, Dr. Davis,” she said in a low voice, “and I’ll have to take off the day. Marcie is covering.”
I said a quick okay and hurried on. I had never heard her mention anything about a Mr. Sophie, or a father to her children, The son was always running away, not showing up to school, or doing something to the car. Cathy, the secretaries’ boss - a crisply efficient woman who favored pink sweaters and chunky necklaces, who had a poster of Chuck Norris on the wall with bullet holes she herself had dealt it at the firing range - would regularly take us aside and ask us to “assess” and “evaluate the situation.” Ramona did that by giving Sophie money, and I did it by ignoring everything.
Sophie reminded me of my patients. There were many examples, like Ms. Morris, a woman in her 40s with bright lipstick and big gold jewelry. She said she was determined to beat her diabetes but her face was fallen. She appeared bowed under an invisible backpack. I asked her why she was down. “It’s my kids - one of them is in trouble at school.” First we talked about that, but then it turned out that another son was in jail. “He’s incarcerated,” she said, “and he’ll be out in 2014.”
I could sympathize, as I was trained to do. I could be wary of pushing her too hard to do what I wanted of her for the sake of her health. But in the end, what did any of it matter? Her son was in jail and I could not change that. Later Ms. Morris stopped coming to see me. Her true support was her church. I was telling her things she didn’t want to know, harping on medicine that she didn’t want to take.
The more patients like this I saw, the more I began to feel a weight on my chest. I tried to shake it off. None of their poverty was my fault. Yet I felt a responsibility.
I found it difficult to explain to myself why I felt this way. I wasn’t the type to right wrongs. I never went to Africa to help starving children or collected used stethoscopes to send to Burma. Maybe this time I couldn’t get my responsibility out of my mind because I felt guilty in my practice.
I felt the eyes of my black patients on me. They were normal people, some good, some bad, but I felt different around them than around my white patients. I wanted someone to tell me I was doing right by them. But as a doctor, the only person I could rely on to tell that to me was - me. And I wasn’t confident enough to depict myself that way to my inner eye.
I tried to bring this up with Sarah. “Baltimore is a desperately poor city,” her reaction would always start, as if she were repeating a mantra. Her fingers would trace a line in the air on an imaginary map. “And we live in the ‘good part of town.’” She provided the quotes with her tone of voice, and I involuntary shrank when I heard her talk this way: not out-and-out racist, but like someone standing outside the city as a whole and looking into it with detached interest, like a visitor to an aquarium.
That’s not the person I wanted to be. I thought I was better than that. Did I help my patients? I was sure I did, as much as I could. Some nights, though, when looking out my office window onto the streets beyond our campus, the streets with boarded up buildings and wispy dying trees, I thought I heard people calling to me. The lives in danger were as concrete as the money I kept in my wallet, but I felt like I couldn’t find my way to them without a conscious and exceptional effort, something I was not sure I was capable of.
The day after I saw Sophie, I walked back to her cubby and asked, “How’s your son?”
“I don’t know where he is,” she said.
I had no idea what to say, but -- as if of its own accord - something came out. “I’ll help you find him.” This was ridiculous. Because of my poor vision I didn’t drive, taking the Hopkins shuttle from home to work, and Sarah took the kids to school daily. I could barely get around on my own. After two and a half years in the city, when I asked my patients where they were from, I smiled and nodded whatever they said. They could have assured me, “I live in Montparnasse, it’s a Baltimore neighborhood,” and I would have given the same pasty-faced smile.
“Oh, doctor, you don't have to do that,” she said. “This is between him and me. I am going to kick his behind. I need no help with that. But thank you,” she smiled. Either I had made her feel better or she remembered to pay me proper respect even when upset.
That evening, when I had finished seeing patients, everyone else had gone home, and my office was an island among the streetlights visible from my window, I Googled her address. She didn’t live far from the hospital. Only while walking there from work (I told my wife I had a meeting to get to -- I would have to invent an explanation later), did I realize I was terrified, a blond guy in a black neighborhood.
The bright lights of the hospital had given way to dark winter streets. People were laughing, hanging out. I heard music and smelled dinner cooking. Perhaps it wasn’t dark after all, but there was precious little light still. No one stopped and asked me what I was doing there. I stuck my hands in my pockets, wondering if I had left my gloves somewhere. I didn’t want to check where I was on my phone, and I couldn’t see the street names. But I didn’t want to ask anyone.
There was an old lady crouched over her walker at a bus stop. I stopped and showed her the address. “You walked past it,” she said matter of factly, and kept looking at me. Maybe she suspected me of something. I walked back in the direction I had come - which was both towards Sophie’s address, and towards my office. I could still pretend I had not gone on this silly excursion.
I caught a glimpse of long hair and a woman’s silhouette on the other side of the street. That was Sophie. Shit. I slumped into my jacket, but she was staring straight ahead - damn my legal blindness and this dark and her dark skin, was she crying or not? - and not noticing anything around her. She opened her door and went in, leaving me outside.
Before I could decide whether to go back to work or find a taxi home, someone else came up the street and stopped opposite Sophie’s house, staring at the door. Then he turned, walked a few steps, got into a black sedan, and drove away.
I couldn’t follow him. I don’t drive. I went home.
The next day, in between patients, I wondered where Sophie’s son had gone that night. I asked her how he was. “Oh, he came back, thanks for asking. But I did pound him for it,” she said laughingly, and I smiled and clucked my tongue.
I made the mistake of telling Sarah about the exchange when I got home - and, when she didn’t understand why me and Sophie were talking about it at all, I made the additional mistake of telling her that I went by Sophie’s home. Her head tilted and she looked at me in puzzlement, her way of saying, “That’s a stupid thing to do.”
That night, I told my nine-year-old, Marie, that she should never run away.
She looked up at me from the mattress and said, “I would never do that, Dad.”
As I was walking away she said, “We heard in school that sometimes, in the old times, people ran away from their homes when they were poor when they had no one and nowhere to go. Nowadays, I thought, people do that too, right, Dad?”
“Where did you learn that?”
“I read it in a book,” she said, and pulled the covers up near her chin. She gave me a half-smile and picked up her book before I could remind her that it was time to sleep, not to read.
I went back again after that night. I asked the name of the old lady with the walker. We struck up a conversation. Her face was deeply lined.
“You don’t look well,” I said to this old lady, flat out.
She looked at me and laughed. “Who are you, my doctor?”
Then we both did a double take. “Doctor Davis!” she called out and gave me a little bow towards me even as she continued to hold on to her walker. “Betty!” I said, and felt my heart plummet into my stomach.
I had diagnosed her with cancer. She was never able to see her oncologist because she didn’t have insurance. At our clinic, we have a program for people like that, but we ask them to pay $20 up front, to have them invest in the process.
She never paid that money, and I wondered what happened to her. She is clearly ill. I didn’t ask her too much about what she is going through currently, because after all she is not my patient anymore. I am not her doctor.
Can I be these people’s doctor? Can I be everyone’s doctor? Why barricade myself in my office?
That’s how I came up with this idea for a free clinic. And that’s why, if you have it in you, I would appreciate your sending whatever sum you can after you read this story. I told Sophie about this clinic and she seemed to be excited by the idea.
A few weeks ago she started seeming brighter again. “I bought a house, Dr. Davis!” she called out one morning to me in the hall. I gave her a thumbs-up.
She never mentions her son to me anymore.
After that night, it took me a while to see people on the street as themselves again. I kept thinking everyone was running away from somewhere. And me being white, and this being Baltimore, and black, I particularly could not take my eyes off the African Americans. How many black friends did I really have? and even given all my liberal sentiments how many of them did I really know?
Once I saw someone near the hospital building where I work who reminded me in physiognomy and attire of the young man I saw near Sophie’s house. I stopped him and said, Are you... and then I turned away, realizing that I had the wrong person altogether. He must have thought I was nuts, although, this being Baltimore, he was too polite to show it.
It could be, all in all, that her son did run away later, and I never knew about it. I keep my eyes open for people that look like that guy I only saw the back of. If she cries, I try to help, if I can figure out what the matter is. Probably I never will.
About the author:
Zackary Sholem Berger writes and translates in English and Yiddish in Baltimore. During the day, he is a mild-mannered physician who writes and researches about doctor-patient communication here.