The Tired Doctor
He thumbed through the pages of the calendar, looking ahead. It was a special edition that contained five years. He wasn’t sure which date in the future it was where he planned to stop. It was with utter resentment that he even held the thing in his hand. Again, where would he stop? At some random date picked like sticking a pin into a map to see where the next vacation would be taken? That might work. Down to two days a week he thought his patients would have figured it out by now. No, they just kept coming back again and again for their treatments. They refused to go to the younger ones that he had recommended, the ones that cubby-holed their practices in office parks or rented space unobtrusively in strip malls.
He studied his hands covered with gullied skin, fanned his fingers out, not as straight as they once where. Pressed his palm on the table, an exercise he’d taught many patients to fight the withering effects of arthritis. Still his greatest instrument responded well, barely enough pain to bring about the slightest wince. This worked. Yet surprisingly, few patients followed his advice. What else could he do for them? He turned back to the calendar.
He held the corner of the calendar close to his hair-plugged ear hole and flipped the pages. The sound of rapidly passing pages fluttering in his ear reminded him of an arcade amusement that he had enjoyed as a kid, a machine with a crank on the side and a viewer mounted on top. The still photos had come to life when he turned the crank; they were obediently still when he stopped. A world controlled by his hand solely. What bliss.
A peculiar chill swept over him. His feet now got cold from time to time. He wasn’t sure why. Never happened before. He then realized that the calendar pages flipping by blew a cool breath into his ear. This chilled him.
He had opened his practice in an industrial section of the city. His father had worked himself to death in one of those factories. He was sure that his medicine would help others who were crippled by the hard labor in those places, the countless patients who came to him with injuries that no other doctor could fix without drugs and a knife. He manipulated the body back into place, taught them strength and conditioning exercises, proper posture and lifting, yet they always came back to him hobbled. Was he giving up on them now?
He remembered back to five years before the calendar in his hands was printed. The largest factory had laid off hundreds of workers and forced hundreds more into early retirement. They weren’t really cutting back the labor force, just bringing in replacements, the ones who were persuaded by their parents not to join unions. The young ones who had been taught that having a job was a privilege, the rewards of low wages were all you received in exchange for the privilege to work yourself into a crumpled existence. He remembered the old ones. Many died from lack of work. What stopped their hearts so abruptly? No place to go? No back to the grind? Their wills severed from daily purpose? It didn’t matter. The young replacements would never come see him. Heaven forbid that they’d voice a complaint over a tired back.
He pursed his lips in a soured pout. He, too, was forced to change. Reduced office hours, no new patients. It was more bitter than sweet. A cantankerous attitude suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Resentment, too. Someone might have asked, “Did you read the new best selling novel?” He’d only answer, “No.” But what he thought was I can’t fit it in. I have to read about the newest developments in my discipline, study for continuing education classes. I don’t have time to read for amusement. All the while he lost patients to the attrition of death and retirement.
He did a strange thing about that time. All his life while practicing his medical art he’d spend at least half of an hour doing needlepoint before falling to sleep. It was the only way to clear his mind and enable him to fall asleep, get a genuine restful night’s sleep. The strange thing was that the needlepoint he had completed, was framed, brought into the office and hung on the wall. A thing he’d never done before. Stitched in cloth were the words: SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND LISTEN.
To whom this message was intended was unclear. It was certainly hurtful to anyone who read it. The doctor had taken to fussing at any patient who had not rigidly followed his instructions. The office personnel mysteriously were no longer able to perform their jobs competently. And all the while the needlepoint hung in full view puzzling anyone seeing it, except the doctor. Although he might have thought whether or not this missive was meant for him, for during an earlier time in his life he would have said, “I need reminding of this.”
His nurse took the thing down late one afternoon and smuggled it out of the office. Three days passed before he noticed it was gone. In an uncharacteristic rage, he accused the cleaning service people of stealing his witticism crafted in thread and woven cloth, delightfully framed and hung upon the wall for all to see. The office manager reminded him that he had fired the cleaning service last year because he believed they were tampering with his instruments when they came to clean at night. No proof existed to substantiate this accusation. It was the one turn in the road that he solely piloted, resulting in their dismissal. The old doc had finally been labeled a crank.
He studied the calendar once more before setting it atop his desk and asked himself, “When should I leave all this behind?”