b Papa Dog's Blog: The Moment I Would Most Like to Do Over if I Could (A Confession)

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Moment I Would Most Like to Do Over if I Could (A Confession)

I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve been (in chronological order, as best I can remember, and eliminating repeat performances) a clerk typist, a bartender, a groundskeeper, a blackjack dealer, a carpet cleaner, a record store clerk, a warehouseman, a comic shop clerk, a secretary, a word processor, a door-to-door salesman, a technical editor, a motel clerk, a data entry clerk, and an accounting drone. I guess you could count writer and publisher too, because I’ve been paid to do both things, but I’ve always tended to think of them more as hobbies. I worked primarily for temp agencies through the 90s, and did so many different things that I’m probably leaving something out of the list. Like once I got paid to pretend to take a job interview. Seriously.

Anyway, in the main list of jobs, far afield as it does stray, I find the common thread running through them all is that none of them mattered in the slightest. None had any effect on anybody else’s life. If I ever failed to show up for the job (which I never have), the person who had to cover me would have been annoyed that day, but other than that the impact on the continued rotation of planet Earth would be approximately nil.

There was one exception, but I didn’t really appreciate that fact until too late.

When I was temping in New Orleans, I somehow got typecast in the medical field. This happens to temps. If you do an assignment at a used car lot, your agency notices this on your profile and the next time a job at a car lot comes up, you get sent. In the Bay Area, I was an engineering guy. In New Orleans I was a hospital guy. My longest-term assignment was at the hematology/oncology doctor’s office at a hospital for children. If “hematology/oncology” aren’t words that immediately register for you, they mean blood diseases and cancer. If a child was a patient of any of the doctors I worked for, then that was one gravely ill child.

I was brought in as a secretary. I despise secretarial work, but there just wasn’t straight word processing work to be had in New Orleans. It was either that or retail. Fortunately, when the staff got wind of my typing skills, they took advantage. I did mostly transcription work. This helped me be even more isolated from the actual work of the department than I would have been. I worked in the doctor’s office, mind, not the clinic. I rarely if ever had contact with the patients or their families, other than to make appointments for them by phone. I knew them only as names on charts that the doctors would have me pull before the clinic opened for the day.

Still, I had to answer the phone now and then. One day the grandmother of one of the patients called. The patient was a little boy, around six years old I think, though I couldn’t swear to it. Grandparents often made the appointments. Often they were the primary caregivers. I don’t remember if that was the case in this instance. The lady asked for her grandson’s doctor, who was the head of the department. He was at that moment on rounds or in clinic or somewhere, so I asked to take a message. She said something that I couldn’t at first make sense of. I thought she said to tell the doctor that her grandson was grounded. I couldn’t fathom why she’d be calling an oncologist about her grandchild’s disciplinary problems. I said “Excuse me?” She again said something that I thought was “He’s grounded.” Excruciatingly densely, excruciatingly slow on the uptake, I said, “He’s grounded?” She repeated a third time, now enunciating so slowly and so loudly that I couldn’t fail to understand. She was saying “drownded.”

My throat closed. There was a horrible silence. I could hear the clock tick.

This boy – he’d gone through so much. He was in his second remission. The doctors were sure they’d beaten the cancer this time—and then he drowned in a swimming pool.

And I’d made his grandmother tell me so three times.

I have a hard time imagining even now how awful that must have been for her. In truth, she sounded strangely calm the whole time, almost nonchalant. When I want to feel better about it—that is, whenever I think about it—the way I look at it is that she was probably so in shock that she wasn’t capable of being upset by the insensitivity of some idiot on the phone. She was coming from such a deep dark pit of grief that lower-level emotions like irritation were completely off her radar. I was probably more appalled by my behaviour than she was. She may have said “he’s drownded” so many times that those few more repetitions came out like so much air from a leaky tire. Anyway, she didn’t cuss me out. I would have, I think.

However she was feeling then, I was faced with the problem of getting off the phone without making matters worse. Normally this is the sort of thing I’d get through with a self-deprecating chuckle, but how could I do that? Clearly not an option. All I could do was cringe and put on my most solemn voice and apologise and promise to find the doctor and have him call her back as soon as possible. So I did that, and hung up, and stared for a moment at my desk calendar. Then, because I’m a shitty secretary, it failed to occur to me that I should just page the doctor. I waited instead for him to come back from clinic to give him his messages, and that ended up taking longer than expected. He was pissed at me for not letting him know right away. I was pissed at me too. I’m pissed at me more now. Now I have a child. I’ve only had to call the paediatrician’s office a couple of times, but each time I’ve hoped that it’s a better secretary than me answering the phone.

1 Comments:

Blogger Robert said...

I find it interesting that the one moment you want a redo on is for someone else's benefit rather than your own.

9:34 AM  

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