Ten Seconds

“How’re you doing today?” I asked to be cordial with our 10 second encounter. He answered warmly, “I’m alive and breathing.” He said it as if he were wearing vacation clothes instead of a red vest with a name tag, as if he were standing on an expansive beach instead of between two car lanes in a small glass box.

It was one of the dozens of mornings my day started with a 45 minute drive last fall. After this I would grab my check-in ticket and shuttle over to the cold, sterile battlefront where Mom got her weekly radiation or met with another doctor or went over the chemo plan. The people working outside the hospital – the valets and the garage checkers, the shuttle drivers and the people giving directions – generally served quietly, keeping themselves a part of the backdrop to so many stories. They seemed almost in conspiracy to honor what everyone was going through. I remember only kindness if I remember anything, but these helpers usually kept themselves out of the spotlight. This morning, the red-vested man’s answer sort of surprised me and I loved him just a little for it.

Every person who drives in and out of the parking garage at Stanford Hospital is intimately acquainted with death. Whether they are to receive good news about a nerve-wracking scan or watching a loved one fight a terminal diagnosis, there is a heaviness accompanying the entire campus off Pasteur Drive. Everyone has contemplated either their own end or the end of someone they care about. Everyone has made space in their imaginations for the unimaginable.

Many – most – are weary. Many cannot carry any more than they are carrying as they drive through the overhang into that garage. Many probably don’t bother asking the person standing there how his day is going because they are being swallowed whole by what life has thrown upon them and even cordiality seems heavy. I don’t want to know how you are doing… My day is awful and I’m scared and if you tell me you’re just “fine” while you stand there cancer-less I might cry.

But sometimes they do ask because it feels normal or they have found some piece of themselves that morning or they are having a good day despite the unknown to come. And when they do, during this man’s shift, they are given something they need for whatever will meet them when they get out of their car. This man tosses a blessing into each driver’s window – for I have no doubt I was neither the first nor last person to hear this answer. I felt a well-worn cadence in his tenor. He offers a sermon in three words, an homily to Being Okay. Like the “one day at a time” rhythm so many step to in recovery, he offers a beat for the cacophony accompanying death and dying. Maybe you cannot put one foot in front of the other, maybe a day seems like too much to handle, but you can breathe.

It has been a year and I still think of the red-vested man. I can’t remember his face, but I will always remember our 10 seconds. He offered solidarity and perspective and encouragement and all I could do was smile as it settled in. Yes… We are alive and breathing… And we’re okay.

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