I knew from the start that I was going to be a doctor. Hell, I'm Jewish, it's practically a given. But joking aside, I really did. I was always the inquisitive type, I excelled in biology; med school was perfect for me… but there's a degree of compassion that's required to truly heal. I didn't realize that until later on.
I was still in school at the time, and took up an internship at an old folks' home. I can't say I was particularly thrilled about it, but it was between that and a vet's office and I've got a terrible allergy to cats, so drooling cretins it was.
The purpose of the internship was to immerse ourselves in the less-than-glamorous aspects of medicine, so naturally, my job involved doing things that extended beyond working the phone desk.
A lot of the seniors there are a blur to me, but there was one man I remember quite vividly. He was unlike any other human I had ever seen. His body was the withered selvage of what had once been a monstrosity of a human—he must have been built like a tank in his heyday. He was very hunched and quiet, which somehow made him all the more intimidating.
"Be careful with that one," one of the aids advised me in a hushed breath one evening as he delivered dinners. "Alzheimer's ain't been too kind on him. Gets in awful tempers. Sometimes he won't even speak English, thinks he's back at the gulag or something. It's just a mess."
Her words did nothing to alleviate my fear of the strange old man, but eventually I was forced to conquer it; I was assigned to deliver him his dinner.
I remember gently pushing the door open, terrified that if it creaked he would turn and unleash a hellish fire of toothless rage. But he sat in his wheelchair, being very quiet and very still. His television was on and it was playing Full House. He paid no attention to it, but rather stared out the window. It was pouring outside at the time, and I remember wondering what could be so damn interesting about the rain.
I set the tray down on the little fold-up dinner chair, and at the sound his head turned very sharply, like that of an attuned bird of prey. My blood froze as his eyes, a cold blue, narrowed at me. Soon, however, they widened into an expression of shock.
"Doctor?" he whispered. His voice was a low rumble that curled in the pit of my stomach.
I swallowed nervously and straightened up, pushing my glasses up my nose. "Uh, no, I'm not the doctor, I'm just a—"
"I thought they killed you," he continued. His eyes drank me in, flickering over every detail of me, somehow amazed at my very presence before him. "I thought you were dead."
"Well, I'm… I'm not." I licked my bottom lip nervously. I was beginning to suspect he may have had me confused for someone else.
"There was so much pain in my heart. So much pain." A large, quavering hand emerged from the plaid blanket he was bundled in, and he reached out to me. "Please, Doctor, hold my hand."
I hesitated a moment. His pleading eyes urged me, and I slipped my fingers between his. He held it tightly with a grip that seemed, at the time, much too strong for such an old man, but now I know better. Strength cannot be tested by time.
He smiled at me softly. "Do you remember that night? In your office? When you were taking bullets out of my leg and you told me you loved me?" He chuckled, and I felt my throat tighten as a thin tear sliced down his cheek. "I remember. I remember each day. Do you remember, Doctor?"
I nodded, and that simple act of validation drew more tears.
I stood there with him as he cried, clutching his hand as tightly as I could. I can't tell you how long I was there, but in our silence he taught me more than years of schooling could ever possibly teach. I stood there until he fell asleep, a sad, withered, selvage of something that once was great and terrible and above all, loving.
I was chewed out for not getting around to delivering the other dinners, and they probably thought I was smoking out back or something, but I don't care. I didn't tell them why I took so long. They didn't need to know.