I looked up in the Campbell’s Clinic waiting room to see a boy, ten years old or so, with his gaze on me. He looked over his left shoulder from a row of chairs that faced the same direction as mine. His was a soft gaze, as if I were a older woman he was glad to see, a grandmother or a beloved great-aunt.
When I caught his eyes fixed on me, I expected him to avert his look, embarrassed at being caught, but he was too innocent for that.
Instead he smiled, as much with his crinkly eyes as with his mouth. Shy, yet direct.
And then the boy I imagined was his brother, sitting barely an inch shorter, was smiling at me too. The same blue-green eyes, the same wave to his sandy hair, the same sprinkling of freckles, marked them as more than friends. I returned their warmth with a nod and a smile, glad to be the recipient of their charm.
The older boy hopped up when the name Ethan was called, the lime green cast on his right arm now visible, embellished with an exuberance of neon permanent markers. Ah, he’s the patient.
A woman with the same eyes and loose tendrils herded Ethan, his brother, and a sleepy-headed toddler girl aroused from her mother’s lap, toward the waiting nurse.
Ethan glanced back at me, with the slightest deliberate nod, before his smiling eyes disappeared from the waiting room into the depths of the clinic.
As our wait stretched toward an hour, we moved to more comfortable seats with a different view, my husband with his new knee, and me. The rambunctious liveliness of Ethan and his family was replaced by the slender dignity of a matron in a beige Chanel suit, ever so slightly frayed at the cuffs. Her long thin fingers were manicured with classic red polish that matched her almost smudged lipstick. Her hands were unsteady, wearing the thin skin and blue veins of age. A single diamond ring was on her right hand, tasteful but not tiny. In her younger years, the hair she wore in a classic bob might have been true auburn, but on this day white roots marked the crooked part, an awkward track across her crown.
She wore hose. Subdued nude stockings. Beige pumps. I scanned my inner timeline and I couldn’t recall how long it’d been since I’d seen a woman wearing hosiery and closed toe heels. In the summer. To the doctor’s office.
Sitting across from her erect posture, I sat up straighter, suddenly self-conscious. Her legs were crossed at the ankles, the way I was taught by Mrs. Underwood in Home Ec., circa 1969, and her barely trembling hands rested in her lap. No magazine to thumb through, no phone to fiddle with. I had no idea how long she’d been sitting there, but I was sure that her composure was long practiced and unconscious. I’d given up practicing at about sixteen years old. This woman clearly had not.
Beside her sat a tidy woman wearing comfortable pants and a cotton blouse, maybe ten years younger, maybe twenty. There was no chair left open between them, though there were more vacant chairs than occupied, so I supposed that they were together. The companion read a magazine with one eye and dozed with the other.
The matron tilted her head toward us in acknowledgement, a graceful movement with a wordless smile. She made eye contact and I saw that her glasses (on a pearly eyeglass chain, of course) needed a quick cleaning.
It was only a few minutes later that she arose, her companion reaching out to steady her, when the name Miz Marjorie was called. The way we Southerners drag out the titles of address for our matrons made it impossible to tell if she was Miss or Mrs. Marjorie.
She drew herself up to her full height, her bearing telling her attendant to allow her the privacy of her doctor’s visit.
Hers was a story I’d never know, yet her composure touched me.
Intrigued, I wondered what changes Miz Marjorie has experienced in her lifetime and what changes lie ahead for young Ethan, so bright and perky. All I know for sure is that yet more changes lie ahead for both of them and for each of us. It’s the inevitable reality.
What would Miz Marjorie share with Ethan if she could leave him a set of informal instructions to refer to when life is throwing him curveballs?
If she could leave him gentle guidelines from her lifetime of experience, she might pen something like this:
My Dear Ethan,
Perhaps you can use a bit of what I want to share with you now but I suspect that, in a future day, it will be of greater help to you.
As you grow, there’ll be more changes come at you than you can imagine, some expected ones and others that will leave you feeling as if your life is out of control. And indeed, it may be.
You don’t have to like it. In fact, I have found that there’s an odd strength to admitting that I don’t like certain things. I’m not thrilled with all the changes I’m dealing with right now, but honesty is always preferable to denial. So be honest about what you’re feeling.
Maybe you didn’t ask “Why?” when you broke your arm because the reason was clear: your arm came in contact with a surface that didn’t give way and something had to give. Result: a broken arm.
In your future, however, there’ll be things happen that don’t have clear causes. You may find yourself asking “Why? Why? Why?” when the unforeseen comes. It’s that way for most of us.
I’ve learned from experience to ask “what?” and “how?” and “who?” more often than “why?” I ask myself questions about what I can do, how I can help myself, and who is a good resource, and I begin to make a plan. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but even an imperfect plan gets me closer to what might work.
You’re an active boy. Good for you! Keep that up. I totter around but I still make myself move. Get outdoors as much as you can when you’re under stress. Feel the sun and the rain and fully occupy your space on this Earth. Take care of pets, tend a garden, hike, walk barefoot. Nature is a natural therapist and she’s free.
Spend some time each day being still, too. Take quiet time to simply breathe in the experience you’re living in. Pray, meditate, breathe, read. I like to start my day with quiet time and end it the same way, but, I imagine, you’ll find what works for you.
I used to be hard on myself when I couldn’t get used to changes as fast as I thought I should or as fast as others thought I ought to. Eventually, I got it that change is a process. It takes time and many steps to change.
Some changes will take longer than others to get absorbed into your life story and that’s okay. Be gentle with your spirit when others push you to be where you can’t be yet. Ease up.
Even when change is painful, maintain a gratitude practice. Note one thing each day, no matter how large or tiny, that you are glad to have in your life. When I’ve gone through the hardest changes of my life, this one thing has consistently reminded me that life holds more than the yucky place I’m in at the moment.
And speaking of the moment, Ethan, stay with your feelings as they arise. They are temporary. Whether happy or sad, confused or serene, they will change. Acknowledge all of your feelings. They are valuable messengers from deep inside you. You’ll be glad to know that acknowledging them doesn’t make them the “boss of you.” They’re only part of your experience, not the core of who you are.
Question whether your decisions are for your wellbeing or whether you somehow hope to change others. The sooner you learn that you can make effective choices only for yourself, not for others—no matter how much you love them—the clearer your choices will be.
When life comes at you hard, surround yourself with people who sustain you. This is not a time to force yourself to be with draining sorts.
Be cautious when making decisions, because the stress of change may cloud your reasoning. Seek wise counsel. Even then, go to more than one source. I’ve found that advice isn’t always good advice.
Finally, as you grow up, you’ll learn what is deeply satisfying to you. When you feel the stress of change, look toward the activities that have comforted you in the past. Do more of those things. If you neglect those activities, you neglect yourself, so remember that your life is precious. Take responsibility for it. Care for it.
Tuck this letter away, Ethan, and use it when you need it. It is offered with love.
Though I’m decades past ten years old, I’m reading over Ethan’s shoulder. When change comes at me fast and I’m not sure I’m thinking clearly, I still want the wise counsel and living example of a Miz Marjorie to show me how to live above my present circumstances.
Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.