Saving the Good Doctor
Ruth Z Deming
My name is Eddie Washington. Like other brothers in North Philadelphia I could have joined a gang, did drugs, gone to jail, or died of a drug overdose like my brother Teddy did. Instead, when I was fourteen, I got saved. This may sound funny but I caught a bad fever and the shakes. Vomiting so bad I had to carry a wastebasket with me around the house. Mama called 911, the ambulance arrived, and the two of us rode in the back to Einstein Hospital. The doc’s name was Helen Abramson.
Man, them hospital beds was uncomfortable, like to killing you, swooping you up and smothering you when you pressed one of them “move-me” buttons. But I only realized this after my delirium passed and then I freaked out at all them tubes stuck into my pretty black flesh like I was a pin cushion.
The doc would come in to see me, dressed all in green, with a parade of what they call interns behind her. Young people, all of them white, except for one black man, who spoke with an accent. Like he from Africa or somewhere.
She was a pretty woman, very tall, blue-eyed, but mostly I couldn’t get over how tall she was as she bent over me taking my vitals. My piss was flowing through a clear plastic bag, which embarrassed me.
“Eddie,” said Dr. Abramson. “Your mother saved your life by bringing you here just in time. You had a serious bacterial infection but a course of several antibiotics got it under control.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, looking up into her blue eyes. I felt so close to her, as if she were my own aunt.
“You can thank your mother,” she said. “And, Eddie. I want to do something for you.”
What she told me blew me away. If I wanted I could volunteer in her lab during the summer. She could get me a little money out of petty cash, not much, she said, but a little something, “money for college,” she called it. I almost laughed in her face. College! Only white folks went to college.
Mama and I went shopping at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop a couple of blocks from our apartment. We knew everyone who worked there from Aunt Esther to Cousin Betty to Uncle Bob. They weren’t really our relatives but we called them those names for respect.
“Uncle Bob,” said Mama. “Will you help my boy find some nice clothes? He’s going uptown to work at that Einstein Hospital, you know, the place where they take our neighbors when they get shot or overdose on heron.” Us blacks call it “heron.”
Uncle Bob, an older, stooped-over man, put his arm around my shoulders and led me to the Junior Men’s Department. I never did like the smell of this place. Mildew, mostly, a hint of bird crap, which no one but me can smell. They say that gay people have sensitivity about the world. I’m gay all right. But I ain’t told no one yet. Black and gay make a bad sandwich.
We picked out some nice colorful shirts, some khaki pants and two neckties, all at the bargain price of five dollars. Bob used his discount card on us. I think he and Mama used to jive together but I’m never sure of her past. You can tell she don’t like talking about it.
Me, I’ve kept a diary since I was eight years old. It was a birthday present from my brother Teddy – he was a sensitive guy like me and knew I liked to make up stories – and when he passed, I spent forty whole pages writing about him when he overdosed on “the white lady,” another nickname for heroin, as if it were a person who came in your room and said, “Come along with me. I loves ya!”
I wasn’t hardly nervous when, dressed to the hilt, Dr. Abramson and I sat down in her little office.
“Snappy blue shirt,” she told me. “You’re looking gloriously healthy, Eddie, and I know you’re staying out of trouble. Right?”
It was like she could read my mind.
“Sure am, ma’am,” I said.
“Please call me Dr. Helen. None of that antebellum stuff,” she laughed. “I’m going to introduce you around. You’re going to be ‘Our Man Friday.’ That means you’ll run errands and do odd jobs for us here in the Infectious Disease Unit.”
She smiled and looked up at me. Her desk held a photo of a handsome black-haired man, who I assumed was her husband, and a vase of fresh flowers, red zinnias, which stuck straight up like tiny umbrellas.
“Our Man Friday,” I laughed. “I like that, Dr. Helen, I like that!”
And so my apprenticeship began.
During the week, I attended junior high where I was a good student. I helped Mama in the kitchen – made fried sweet potato patties with tiny chopped onions inside. When my homework was done, which took only ten minutes, I ran down seven flights of stairs at our North Philadelphia project to play basketball with the guys.
First, we’d use our feet to kick all the junk off the court – potato chip wrappers, plastic bottles, condoms – man, those brothers was the sloppiest, most disrespectful guys you ever laid eyes on. And, the courts always smelled like piss. I’d see brothers, young and old, pee anywhere they pleased.
What would Dr. Martin Luther King think?
Of course, I never cussed when I talked to Dr. Helen or any other female. “Brothers’ language” is so expressive. Use only with caution. Miss O’Reilly, my English teacher, told me about Miss Maya Angelou.
“You’ll love her writing, Eddie!” she said. “Your compositions are so creative, I think you can be a great writer.”
When I checked out I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
– it was over three hundred pages – I read it three times over and am saving my money to buy my own copy. I knew for a fact that I was going to write. That this brother, Edward Elias Washington was born to write.
One Saturday morning, after taking the subway to work at Einstein, and striding two steps at a time up the back stairwell - back stairwells being favorite mugging places for my people – I entered the lab and saw Dr. Helen’s office was dark.
“Wh….. Where is she?” I asked a blond intern.
“Eddie,” she said. “I have some sad news.”
My heart pounded. Had something happened to her? What could it be? Had she caught one of those infectious diseases she was always treating? Hadn’t her green gown and white mask saved her?
“Have a seat, Eddie,” said Karen.
The lab was a sparkling white and the floors as clean as Mama’s floors.
Karen sat on a tall stool in front of her microscope. I took a seat on a rolling black desk chair and skidded it over to her.
“Her husband Lenny died suddenly,” she said.
I appreciated how kind she was to me, this odd man out.
“Wha… What do they think happened?” I asked.
“Sudden heart attack. He was only forty-two years old.”
“Forty-two and he dead already,” I said, shaking my head.
Of course I went to the funeral. It was held right at the cemetery. There were so many people you could have packed them into a football stadium. Dr. Helen, all in black with a veil like Jackie Kennedy’s, was surrounded by her people. She needed their arms to steady herself. She was really broke up, you could tell just by watching her.
A white tent held some of the guests. I worked my way inside because I just had to see, I just had to see how my girl was holding up and if there was anything, anything in the whole wide world I might do for her.
The sea of faces was mostly white with a few amber faces, and I recognized many of them from their pictures across the walls of Einstein: the president of the hospital was there and the award-winning transplant teams, all of them standing with downcast eyes and looking toward the rabbi who would deliver the eulogy.
Lenny was in a pecan-colored casket which stood at the edge of a deep hole. You know they’re dead when you see that darn hole. My brother Teddy has a hole of his own, but you know he ain’t down there. He’s in the arms of Jesus.
I felt a hand on my arm and it was Mama. She’d had errands to do but always was one to attend funerals. “You always show respect,” she had told me many times. “Everyone likes weddings cuz they’re fun and you get free liquor. But funerals is serious business and you is appreciated and never forgotten by the mourners.”
A flurry of Hebrew words flew from the rabbi’s mouth, climbed right up the trees with their chirping birds and up into the blue sky. It was a beautiful day. Trees I recognized from the Abyssinian Bible Church – dogwoods, flowering cherry and catalpa - as a kid I’d make a mustache with the catalpa bean pod – all lent their sorrow to this solemn occasion.
“Lenny was beloved by every single person who knew him,” said the rabbi, pronouncing every word slowly. He wanted people to hear about Lenny, or Leonard S. Abramson, as written up in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“As a defense attorney, he fought hard for our Philadelphia underclass, in some cases charging no more than a sack of peanuts for his impoverished clients.
“Who are we,” he counseled, “to ask God why this good man died so young?”
At this, my eyes flooded with tears that dripped silently down my cheeks. Mama brushed them away. She’d had so many sorrows her tears was practically all dried up. We held hands during the ceremony and decided to leave before visiting Dr. Helen and her family where they stood inside the white tent.
When Dr. Helen returned to work, I could see immediately that she was a different person. If Lenny had been forty-two, then she must be somewhere in her late thirties. She looked like an old woman. Huge bags under her eyes sat like purple cushions, waiting to be smoothed down. Between her eyes she seemed to sprout deep furrows overnight. She dressed only in black and wore a pin on her green hospital gown with a tiny black ribbon attached. Karen told me the Jews wore that as a symbol of loss.
One afternoon, I knocked on her door. I knew she was in there but there was no answer. Cranking open the door a little, I peeked inside. She saw me.
“Eddie,” she said startled. “I was just taking my vitamins.”
She held a dark-colored bottle of Raspberry Snapple in her hand, popped the pills in her mouth, and leaned her head back.
She asked, “What is it, my dear?”
“Don’t rightly know,” I said. “I …. What can I do to help you get over your loss?”
“Did you hear Rabbi Greenwald?” she asked. “Nothing but time and work will help. I’m going to throw myself into work. I’ll give you more assignments, if you like.”
I nodded and let myself out the door.
As the weeks passed, I knew what Dr. Helen was doing in her office and wondered if anyone else did. She’d go into her private quarters more than she used to and instead of keeping the door open, she closed it, and we could hear the lock turn. It didn’t take no narc to see she was drugging herself into such a fog she could barely speak right.
“Sorry,” she would say to her colleagues. “It’s that antidepressant I’m taking. Lexapro.”
Drug addicts always have excuses. Look, I’m no innocent. But you better not tell Mama! OxyContin is pretty cheap on the streets. I liked the buzz. Teddy and I and a few of our friends crushed the pills and snorted them through our nose.
Hallelujah, what a feeling! You couldn’t do nothing, though, except sit around and nod and give glory to God. And that’s when I saw Jesus himself walk into the park where the five of us sat near the basketball court.
“He has come!” I said, pointing across the field.
“Who’s come?” asked Donald.
“Jesus hisself,” I said pointing toward the fence.
“You’re a natural-born idiot!” said Donald. “That ain’t no Jesus, it’s a pretty woman with long hair.”
If I knew my stuff, Dr. Helen was on painkillers like Oxy. The woman, wearing her white lab coat, would often stop walking across the floor and stare off in the distance, mumbling under her breath.
I mentioned it to Karen.
“I know, Eddie,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do. We can’t tattle-tale on the good doctor.”
I let it be until one time I saw her near the elevator. No one was around. She was in her going-home clothes, standing tall as a basketball player, wearing low-heeled pumps, and talking quickly to someone. She was not on her phone. I stood stock-still wanting to hear her words.
“Lenny,” she said. “Excuses, excuses. I want you home as soon as I get there.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ll be home at 7 o’clock and if you’re not there, well, we’re going to have a serious talk.”
At home, I discussed the situation with Mama. She was shocked that a white woman had taken on the black people’s curse, but we sat on our well-worn green sofa and talked it over. A wooden crucifix hung over the television set, next to a black and white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King. As the wind blew the white curtains like the sails on a ship, I began to pray.
“Dear Lord,” I said. “With your goodness and mercy, let myself and my Mama learn how to help Dr. Helen.”
The gospel music station played on the AM radio.
“Mama, where’s your fancy writing paper?” I asked.
“Lord have mercy,” she said, as she got painfully up from the sofa and went over to the desk in the living room that held color photos to bursting on top and reached inside the top drawer.
She showed me a lined lavender tablet with little flowers on top. “This good?”
“Good,” I said, sitting back down on the couch and feeling the spring breeze glide through the window.
I wrote a note and showed it to Mama.
“Good, son, very good. I’m sure proud of you.”
On Sunday morning after church, I took the subway to Einstein. Weekends were the days the homeless people rode the rails, passing the time until they went to their grave or Jesus saved them. You didn’t want to sit anywhere near them. They stunk. An indescribable smell of human waste and the contents of decaying food and meat in a dumpster. Nonetheless, I sat opposite a bearded man, whose head was bent down to his chest, and all he did was mutter to himself.
Einstein hospital was always open. Ambulances were constantly screeching into the emergency room. I got used to it, though at first my heart would thump in panic when I heard the shrill noise.
I took the elevator to the eighth floor and saw a light on inside. My knock on the door was answered by the doctor herself. When you deal with addicts, the first thing you do is look at them. How far gone are they? Are they fixing to get their next high?
“Why, Eddie,” she said. “What a surprise!”
She slurred her words.
“The Lexapro fog?” I asked.
“You have a good memory. Whatcha doing here, kid?”
“How bout we take a seat in your office.”
“Where’s Lenny’s picture?” I asked.
“Oh!” she laughed. “That! Well, I really don’t know.”
“Dr. Helen,” I said. “Your husband is dead. He will never come back. Never ever ever.”
“Don’t say that, Eddie!” she said in a panic. “Don’t ever say that again or you’ll be out of a job.”
“How do you think Lenny would feel if he knew his wife was a drug addict?”
She laughed. “You’ve got some nerve, Eddie, some nerve.”
I gave her the letter on the lavender paper with the flowers on top. I intended to leave it with her if she wasn´t there. The words were about my brother Teddy dying of an overdose and how I didn’t want her to follow in his footsteps.
She swiveled her chair around so I couldn’t see her face. She did not move for a very long time. We sat there in silence. I stared at her back as if I could hypnotize her to get help.
When she turned around, she put the letter on the desk and looked down at it a moment. She began to tremble and cry. She reached her hand into a lower desk drawer and pulled out five pill bottles and held them out.
“Thank you,” I said, tucking them into my backpack. “You are going to get better. It’s the Lord’s will.”
Since she had nothing planned that day, she said we could go together. Sunday afternoon was as good a time as any to attend a meeting. I know my way around the city by train and bus. We went to a nice white people’s Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Walking in, we smelled the coffee brewing. The smell of it made me happy. After a while, Helen, dressed in a black sweater and matching black skirt, walked from our table to the podium. Looking over the group of twenty addicts, she focused on me and said, “Hi, my name is Helen and I’m an addict.”