Authors: Scott Abbott
Rebecca felt faint and her breath became strained. She leaned over Braden's head to Patrick. “I'm going to stretch my legs,” she mouthed.
ebecca had walked past the same nurses' station three times before she realized she was traveling in a circle, a circle that happened to have four right hallway corners. The children's wing here wasn't as big as at Lenox Hill, but any children's wing at all was big enough.
In her days as a resident, she had decided early on that she would specialize in geriatric medicine. Rebecca had told herself that the elderly were the ones in need of the greatest care. It was they who had married, raised children, contributed to the general welfare of society, and now, in their late stage of life, deserved the best treatment any hospital had to offer.
But now Rebecca wondered. Had she swung the pendulum of her skills to that other side of the age spectrum not out of nobility, but out of cowardice? Was it just easier to care for a human being who'd lived a full life? In her days as a medical student, Rebecca had logged only limited time with sick children. The little ones who'd awakened from birth to a world named after a disease: leukemia, neutropenia, progeria, and on and on. The terms had spun through her mind like a carousel of painted horses carrying no riders.
Was that why she had been drawn to geriatrics? For the same reason she'd told Patrick she needed to stretch her legs, when actually it was her heart that was uncomfortable? Rebecca had seen this gentle man reach out and take hold of his son's small hand. She told herself they needed their privacy.
But what kind of privacy was there in a room packed with little people who lived their lives in a crowd of doctors, nurses, and attendants? Whose illnesses meant endless tests and treatments and procedures that left them completely vulnerable and tore away at any semblance of solitude? Little people who would probably never know what it was like to be bigger than little? Who would never know what it was like to walk down a high school hallway and suspect that they were the biggest geek God ever bestowed on the world? Who would never know what it was like to come down with the flu the very afternoon of their junior prom and then watch from a bedroom window while their date took a visiting pretty cousin instead? Who would never know what it was like to feel the pain that a full life inevitably brings with the very act of living?
These were her memories, not theirs. But would they ever get the chance to have memories? Even painful ones?
Life was full of pain. It was unavoidable, but it was also what gave the joy its own life and limbs. Pain was obligatory. There was no getting around that. But suffering was optional.
Rebecca stopped walking and let the thought stream through her brain and heart. “Pain is obligatory. Suffering is optional,” she said out loud to herself.
Here she had been, polishing her guilt and grief over an old mistake whose shelf life had long since expired. She'd given herself a good, self-indulgent dose of suffering. The panhandler was right. “What's done is done.”
Rebecca looked ahead down the hallway and saw a child crouched in the corner, busy coloring. She must have passed by the young boy all three times without noticing him. But he was a welcome sight, looking healthy, rosy-cheeked, and clear-eyed. Rebecca approached the boy and looked down to where he was scribbling away with a brown crayon across a hospital pamphlet.
The pamphlet was a brochure for the treatment options for childhood bone cancer. On the cover, a face no more than three years old smiled out from under a hairless scalp.
The boy's crayon drew on hair. He finished the pamphlet, set it down on the pile he had already completed, and moved on to the next.
Rebecca's presence finally caught the boy's attention and he looked up at her, expecting to be reprimanded for defacing the brochures. He met her gaze with quiet defiance. “My sister should be allowed to have hair. They should all be allowed to have hair.”
The boy returned to his dogged coloring, his hands determined to restore what had been stolen from his sister, his eyes fixed on fixing his world.
Rebecca studied the child. “Yes,” she said to herself, deciding what would be her daily motto for the rest of her life. “Suffering is optional.”
MY SON'S FATHER
ain is obligatory. Suffering is optional” was all Rebecca had said to Patrick just before she'd left him at the hospital late last Friday night. That night, her strange farewell played over and over in his mind as he stayed up and stared at his sleeping boy until he fell asleep himself. But when he woke, there was her sentence again, echoing in his mind.
Monday morning, Patrick arrived early in his costume and passed a new Santa for charity, who banged a tambourine and called out for donations. “Make a donation to Coins for Kids. Care for those who can't care for themselves.”
Patrick spent the day working his magic on the corner. Rebecca had come and gone, of course not recognizing him at all, but now he looked at her with new eyes. She really had seemed warmer to him when she'd left last night. Or maybe it was just Patrick's imagination, or vain hopes dancing around his head like new sugarplum fairies. Ted and his assistant had stopped by as well. Patrick had even been warmer to him. Perhaps Rebecca's warmth was contagious. But at the end of the day, Patrick stuffed all his bills and coins into his robe and walked past the Coins for Kids Santa, who hadn't done nearly as well. He felt guilty. Patrick fished out a ten and dropped it in the red bucket.
“Thanks!” said the Santa.
“Don't mention it,” said Patrick as he continued on.
But still he felt guilty. Ten dollars dropped in the bucket wasn't going to take that away. Was he stealing from people who really needed it? With or without the Coins for Kids Santa, was he stealing? Here he was pretending to be something he was not. But everyone knew the Ghost of Christmas Present was just a role, so perhaps he wasn't stealing but playing a part and providing a service. Or perhaps he was convincing himself of his own lies?
These questions took him around to the back alley where he set down the day's to-go containers. Red-Beard in the Yankees cap and the rest of the squatters huddled in a cold circle around an ash-can fire. “What you serving this evening?” Red-Beard called out.
“Haven't had the chance to look,” Patrick replied.
“Potluck? And on a Monday?”
Patrick shook his head and turned back. “Good appetite, gentlemen.” He waved his hand and made his way out of the alley.
Waiting at the entrance stood a large, familiar silhouette. Coins for Kids Santa stepped out of the shadows and blocked his way. He sported a great wide smile. Then suddenly the Santa grabbed Patrick and slammed him against a Dumpster.
“Listen to me, you begging sack of crap. That's my intersection! I've worked it for years, and some street freak like you's not gonna steal any of my action.”
The Santa held Patrick by his green velvet robe, which began to rip.
“Hey!” The voice came from behind the Santa, who turned to see Red-Beard in his Yankees cap along with the other squatters standing in an imposing semicircle.
“You bums crawl back into your bottles.”
Red-Beard stepped up to the Santa and pulled him off Patrick. Patrick straightened his robe as the squatters surrounded the man in red. “We don't like it when Santa Claus gets rough,” announced Red-Beard.
“Doesn't feel natural,” said another.
Red-Beard reached out and yanked the white beard from the thug's face to reveal a stubble-covered chin. “Well, whaddya know?” Red-Beard said as he looked back to the others. “He's not the real Santa Claus.”
“That's a relief.”
Red-Beard pulled off the Coins for Kids ID from the crimson coat and tossed it aside. “And I'm willing to bet this wasn't made at the North Pole either. Hit the bricks.”
The thug picked up his beard and badge and took off down the alley. Red-Beard looked at Patrick. “All right. We've been meaning to ask. We know you're not the leftover food fairy. Who are you, really?”
“I'm my son's father,” Patrick said, and he headed the down the alley the opposite way.
The squatters watched him go.
A TRUE LABORER
atrick sat by Braden's hospital bed, but he looked out the night window instead of fixing his gaze on the boy as he'd always done. The day had shaken him.
It had started out with such a glow of hope, with recalling Rebecca's observation of pain being obligatory and suffering being optional. It was a strange refrain, but somehow her words offered Patrick the sense that life itself was dropping a whispered promise into his cup that his life as Braden's father wouldn't be interrupted after all.
After Linda's sudden death, being a father had been the most painful thing Patrick had ever experienced. But he had done everything he could think of to keep the suffering outside in the hospital hallway and not in his son's room. He had never broken down into sobs just to hear himself cry. He had never cursed the night clouds just so he could hear his own voice shout, “You've stolen my wife, and now you come for my son?”
Those would have been the outbursts of suffering. And it became clear to him through Rebecca's words that when he had decided to beg in disguise, it was another way he had turned away from any self-Âmanufactured misery and instead embraced the pain that living brings.
But the day that had started out with Rebecca's promising words in his mind had ended with a criminal Kris Kringle. Perhaps Patrick should just go to another corner, find another part of town.
But that was his corner. Those people were his regulars. And he didn't steal their money with a forged badge. He earned it. He was providing a service. A good fifteen or so folks whom he now knew by name came up to him every day with requests.
There was Mindy, who worked in the cafÃ© across the street. She had a son serving on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Patrick had offered up T. S. Eliot for her one day on her way home from work. “At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives homeward, and brings sailors home from the sea.”
She'd wiped a tear from her eye, dropped a five in his cup, and every day after that asked him to quote the same line until she didn't need even to ask. It was simply their daily farewell to each other.
Then there was Kent, who worked in public relations. Patrick had overheard him tell a colleague on the street corner that he was planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him at a hockey game that night on the public video monitor. Patrick had not been able to help himself. “O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do! Not know what they do!”
“Excuse me?” Kent was annoyed with the green-robed panhandler who had intruded on their curbside conversation and stood uncomfortably close.
“As all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly.”
The young man's face grew even more confused. “What is that supposed to mean?”