The files stacked under a precarious arrangement of desk supplies began their landslide just as I stumbled into the elevator, unsteadied by the weight of the box. Marc would have said I was defying the laws of physics in the way they were piled and I knew I should have planned a second trip, but as always I was hurrying to be efficient. When the elevator doors opened on the third floor I was on my knees, shoving loose papers and partially filled files back into the box. The elevator doors closed, but at least it didn’t go back down to the lobby. I finally gathered the mess and stepped out into the hall, mercifully empty at 7:15 in the morning.
I stood at the office door with my now haphazardly stuffed box in my arms, looking into the newly vacated office— my office. It was a relief to finally have a four-drawer file cabinet where all of my reference files would be accessible as well as a real desk with drawers, instead of a cramped counter-top work area in a shared office. This was just the first load, but the process of moving in represented an important new beginning for me with renewed hope for the future, though a far cry from what I had envisioned for this particular June. I smiled in wonder, startled at my own confidence that I actually intended to improve upon a well-respected program while building another from scratch in the prestigious New Beginnings Rehabilitation Clinic.
I set the box on the desk, peeled off my coat, hung it and the umbrella behind the door, and stashed my purse in the lower right desk drawer. Hoping coffee was brewed, I headed past the elevator towards the staff lounge, reminiscing. Nearly seven months ago, I was thrilled to walk down this hall for the first time. I’d gone to graduate school with a job like this in mind and here I was five years later directing a program that I fully intended to build into the best speech/language pathology and audiology department in upstate New York.
The thick aroma of coffee in the lounge reminded me of Marc, as always. We should be celebrating tonight. Why aren’t you here? I stopped and stared at the counter and sink. The kitchenette had been scrubbed since Friday, still suggestive of pine cleaner but losing the battle with the coffee. I assumed the cups had been washed too, and opened the cupboard above the sink in search of my University of Wisconsin Badgers mug.
"So here’s our new director of speech therapy on this fine Monday morning and you are the first one here, after me of course, and so tell me you had a wonderful weekend Hannah so I—"
"Oh, Anthony." I turned around briefly to smile at our verbose building maintenance man. "Good morning." Peering into another cupboard, "You know, the department has been renamed. It’s now the department of communications." Still without my mug, I turned to find him at my side. "You did a great job with this kitchen."
He squatted, reaching up to hand my Badgers cup to me from the cupboard below the sink. "Well, so it’s only been two weeks since I scrubbed these down but there was lots of abandoned cups in the sink and the stinky containers in the fridge were crying for help so I thought if I didn’t get busy cleaning this dirty mess—"
"Thanks a lot." As I poured the coffee, I thought how odd it was that he put the cups below instead of above the sink, wondering how he knew which was mine.
"So it’s a fact: the simple are so easy to please and so it’s my pleasure to please you and—"
"Um, thanks Anthony, I think."
He watched my grimace. "I mean, I mean, oh, Hannah, it’s good to be simple because when a person complicates life with lists of gotta-haves he misses out on all those simple pleasures and so then he has no joy and did you know that’s why children teach us how—"
"Thanks Anthony." My free hand shot up to stop him and I hurried it back to help hold the hot mug. "I’d better get to work."
He walked with me out of the lounge. "So um, I saw that big pile of papers all over your desk and it’s a mess and so I was wondering—"
"I lost control of the box in the elevator and… well, it was a garage sale."
He stopped and was staring at me with a frown before understanding lightened his face. "Oh, so, garage sale. I didn’t know you were buying a car and I’m pretty mechanical and cars are my hobby and so tell me, Hannah, how a garage sale works cuz I might be interested…" His voice faded as he watched me take my turn to frown, in utter confusion. I took a breath and started to open my mouth but couldn’t find any sense. He responded to my confusion, "You said ‘garage sale’ and so I guess well, so did you buy a car but what does that have to do with the papers in your office and I guess—"
"What?… a ‘garage sale’ means… it means, it’s like a stoop sale. They use the term out west on the ski slopes, when you fall badly and your skis and poles and everything is scattered along the course of your fall… I dropped the box and the papers were scattered in the elevator."
He looked down the hall and shoved his hands in his pockets as pink climbed his pale, delicate features. I waited, trying to determine how best to lighten his embarrassment, whether by walking away or saying something. Recovering quickly, he sighed and gave me his brightest, fullest smile, from raised eyebrows to his perfect teeth, "So, well, um, so I better get to work. Thanks for explaining it." He shrugged, paused as though uncertain what to do next, and turned to open the door to the stairs by the elevator. I’ll remember for my entire life how that smile was like opening the shades to let in the sunshine, how that humble man had a way of simplifying life and driving out the frustrations of the moment with his genuine neon smile. I always meant to ask whether he’d worn braces or inherited perfect dental alignment.
I hadn’t yet settled on the best way to manage a conversation with Anthony. He worked miracles with mechanical problems and was always reliable, but fired out more words, more rapidly than anyone I’d ever known. Priding myself on being extremely patient and a good communicator, I was disappointed to find he challenged my concentration and frustration beyond endurance. I hadn’t taken the time to ask about his personal background, though his speech patterns revealed a disturbing, unfair prejudice within me that he didn’t have much education. We had never discussed religion, but I sensed a deep faith underlying comments he made, which stirred in me a turbulence of pain I wasn’t willing to address so soon after Marc’s pointless death. I still couldn’t reconcile the devastating loss with my own belief in God’s love or power.
Back in my office, I set the coffee on the empty bookshelf and began making piles of file contents, grateful to discover most still in a semblance of order. I can’t believe what’s happening, Marc. Director of communications. I’ve been promoted in only six months. Everything I do— everything I’ve done since… the accident… has worked out so easily. First, getting the job here and now this position. How did this start? I can’t remember a time in my life when things flowed so smoothly.
After aligning the corresponding brochures and faxes, I filled the file labeled "Rehabilitation Facilities in U.S." with its segment of the elevator spill, or "garage sale." I think I might have laughed out loud at the thought of Anthony’s confusion and how much Marc would have enjoyed hearing about that funny misunderstanding. Placing the file in the top drawer, I reached for the coffee mug and looked over the papers for another file cluster.
But you’re not here, so even though great things are happening, it doesn’t matter. I’d give up all this in a flash if it meant having you back. Every time they sing Happy Birthday to someone around here, I hear you singing "Hannah-Marc forever" with the goofy lyrics you invented, instead. I think I even believed it; we’d be forever. I guess I was naïve to think—
"Well, look who’s here. Setting up your very own office?" The tone was flat, mocking and I stiffened as a chill hit my back, and slowly turned to greet Jan McDermitt standing in the doorway. I smiled as warmly as I could, wondering how long my boss stood there and whether I’d been thinking aloud.
"Good morning Jan. I got in early but have a mess here already." In her presence lately my words seemed to run away on their own, betraying me to join Jan’s side.
"I can see." She shook her head and did a smirky thing with her mouth that sent me waves of disapproval. Red must be a power color for women’s suits. She radiated control, confidence; the gestalt as well as the details— hair, makeup, and nails— absolute perfection. I reminded myself there were no sides and we were both on the New Beginnings Rehabilitation Clinic team, once again rebuking my lifelong tendency toward melodramatic introspection.
If there had been a clock to hear, I’d have heard it ticking in the silence as we looked at each other.
It took all my concentration to not break eye contact and keep a smiling face. "Um, did you want to schedule a time to meet or—"
"No," she scowled, "I have work to do." The back of her new suit was somehow just as sharp and expensive looking as the front. I frowned down at my own clothes, the third outfit of a typically frenzied morning of trying on clothes, and still wasn’t sure about the shoes. My hand touched my hair as if checking if it was still the same as always— in rebellion and all wrong.
I took another sip of coffee and continued sorting through the pile, reassembling the file "Feeding Techniques for Premature Infants."
My mouth didn’t seem to disconnect from my brain around anyone but Jan. Oh, and my mother but that was another matter. Something about the way Jan pursed her lips and shook her head conveyed disgust and I could almost feel my heart hurt in response. It hadn’t always been that way. We hit it off so well when we first met that she immediately hired me after a 30-minute interview and we’d enjoyed a great working relationship for almost seven months, before she was promoted to oversee all therapy departments. When the other staff speech pathologists didn’t seem interested in applying for her old position as director of speech pathology, I submitted my resume even though I was the newest hire, but remembered being disappointed in Jan’s lack of encouragement at my confiding to her how much I wanted the opportunity. Chilled by her cold vibes in staff meetings and interaction in the weeks that followed, I attributed her changed attitude to tension and distraction about her new position, reminding myself it was egocentric to think her bad moods were because of me.
I took a deep breath and looked back to the barely discernable order of papers on my desk. Another sip of coffee and back to the process.
By 10:00 I had the mess sorted and a file system strategy in mind with fourteen files in the cabinet. My first patient was predictably on time and would be waiting in the lobby with her mother, so I called for them to come to the treatment area. We had four treatment rooms at the end of the hallway separated by an observation room with two-way mirrors so parents or loved ones could watch the training. As a therapist, my time with patients was almost always fun and rewarding and I looked forward to most sessions.
Molly Hoffman, a bright nearly-two-and-a-half-year-old, had suffered a stroke before or during the birth process. She was similar to an adult stroke patient, with her speech and right arm and leg affected. Fortunately the young brain has tremendous capacity to compensate for damaged areas and her prognosis was excellent.
"Good morning Molly." I knelt down to her eye level, placing a hand on the floor to steady my balance while squatting, to wait for her response. Our eyes locked for several seconds, as she stood there holding her mother’s hand, and she finally opened her mouth.
More seconds later she said, "mo-nin" in a melodic imitation of my "morning." Her mother, Gloria, and I smiled and nodded as I stood, smoothing Molly’s flyaway blond pixie cut.
I took her hand and we reached the therapy room, freeing Gloria to enter the adjacent observation room. Molly leaned on my strength to help her balance while negotiating her bottom into a 12-inch child-sized chair, from which she intently watched me select a basket of therapy toys from the cabinet. Anticipating the routine, she waited patiently until I returned with the toys, squatting onto another of the tiny chairs beside her at the child-height table.
What to Molly seemed like play, was really a series of carefully structured opportunities to use key words: mama, dada, baby, ball, night-night, fall down, up, drink, more. She understood words and sentences and had nonverbal intellectual skills several months ahead of her age. The problem was that like many adult stroke patients, she knew what she wanted to say, but couldn’t find the word. In technical jargon, her expressive speech was delayed. Her behavior at home typified many children with speech problems in that she would have emotional outbursts of frustration, even tantrums. She’d already come to understand that most people could not or would not wait for her to produce words—which most often wouldn’t be clear enough to be understood anyway. I felt honored at the opportunity to help Molly and children like her "find" words, and begin stringing them together into sentences.
After our thirty minutes together, I glanced into the two-way mirror and winked, our signal for Gloria to enter the therapy room. Mirrors can be difficult to ignore; I couldn’t resist frowning at myself and smoothing, then fluffing my troubled hair. I immediately felt foolish, hoping Gloria was already on her way into our room and had been spared my moment of vanity. As always, Molly squealed and reached out to her when she entered. Gloria sat on Molly’s chair and positioned her daughter between her legs, snuggling into her chest, as Molly held up toys for her mother to "ooohuuu" and "ah" and then label, "That’s the mama doll, Molly . . . Oh, you have a car . . .. The baby’s sleeping. Night-night, baby." We continued playing with the same toys and Gloria mimicked my phrasing and modeling. Molly at first was quieter than she’d been with me but gradually began imitating sounds and words again, this time imitating her mother’s examples.
"Hannah, this is great. When I watch the session I can’t wait for these ten minutes in here. I hear more words from her than I ever hear at home."
"Molly responds well to the intensity of just a few key words at a time… and that’s just not like typical conversation." I hoped to reassure her that at this phase of speech therapy it was not unusual for her to be less verbal at home. "She won’t always need to learn new words here. She’s just getting started."
Molly had watched our conversation carefully while holding the car, set it down, commanding it as I had modeled repeatedly for thirty minutes, "Go!" and pushed it across the table. Gloria grinned victoriously at her daughter in her arms.
I walked them to the elevator and Gloria lifted Molly to push the elevator button, repeating, "Up please." to model the phrase her child would someday use to request the lift. After confirming our next appointment, Thursday at 10:00, the elevator doors closed and I turned toward my office.
I nearly collided with Anthony at the door of my office; he stepped into the hall to let me enter. "So there’s the woman I’m looking for and so I see you are finished with the garage sale! Hah." A large bunch of daisies was on my desk, in one of those ugly green glass vases found in florists shops. I turned to him with the unspoken question on my raised eyebrows. He looked away, but that irrepressible smile betrayed him.
"What have you done?"
"Oh, you weren’t supposed to know they’re from me and so you read my mind and so I hope you like them and—"
"Of course, but why?"
"To celebrate your new job, of course and so to let you know—"
The phone on my desk interrupted him. "Hannah, your next patient is here."
"Send them up in just about two minutes, please. Anthony, you’re the sweetest. Thank you so— thank you very much, but you shouldn’t be spending your money on me!"
"Oh no, ma’am these aren’t from any ol’ florist and they’re from my garden so you can see the earth is the Lord’s and he’s given me a beautiful season of daisies this spring and so—"
"Thanks, Anthony. Bless you." I sat to make a quick note in Molly’s chart and pull the file for my next patient.
My sessions went well with the next two patients and I finally sat at 1:15 with my lunch of warmed soup and an apple from home. Fortunately, my colleagues— also now my staff— had treated patients through the lunch hour too, so we had the third floor lounge to ourselves except for one interruption by a board member touring a potential donor through the facility. This was our first time together as a group with me no longer simply a colleague, but their boss. I envisioned myself as the team captain, still a player but also with responsibility and decision making authority. I was eager to set the right tone from the beginning. "I’d like to take you all out for a nice lunch to celebrate in advance what we’re going to accomplish as a team, and talk strategy."
"Terrific! When? Where?" Marge opened her calendar notebook.
"Oh no, that’s not necessary. I really don’t think . . ." Anne’s brow wrinkled and she shook her head, crossing her arms.
"That is sooo sweet." Janetta reached out to take my hand.
It was all I could do to restrain myself from giving them my leadership philosophy speech right then and there. I was brimming with vision and passion for how I wanted us to incorporate our expertise and personalities to provide the best speech therapy in the region. These were women I’d only known for six months but I respected their clinical skills and anticipated growing close as friends, also. I could hear Marc’s words: "Don’t tell them everything you know right away. Don’t tell them everything you’re thinking. Wait for the right timing."
We decided our luncheon would fit our busy schedules best on Friday for Jose Gonzalez Cantina, the best Mexican food in the area, assuring each other that breath mints offered adequate protection to our Friday afternoon patients. Marge entertained us with stories about her weekend and Janetta responded as though on cue with questions and anecdotes, drawing the three of us into several lively topics. Anne ate in storm-cloud silence and stared at the table except when asked a question directly. Marge and Janetta exchanged glances and seemed to be trying to bring her into the conversation, eliciting only monosyllabic responses. I’d never seen her so solemn and until then it hadn’t occurred to me she’d never mentioned hobbies or interests outside of her career. The only knowledge I had of Anne’s weekends in the nearly seven months we’d all shared an office as colleagues was her animated descriptions of whatever workshops or classes she’d attended to improve her skills as a speech and language pathologist or related topics in medicine, psychology, education, even computer technology. I enjoyed the lunchtime interaction, dismissing Anne’s behavior as a mood, some personal concern, or simple lack of interest in the antics of Marge’s three-year-old twins’ first swimming lessons or Janetta’s stories of her grown children and young grandchild.
Their shared office was adjacent to the lounge and we heard the phone begin ringing at 1:53 as patients began arriving. By 2:00 we were in our offices calling for our patients. I didn’t have time to think about much else until 5:20. With my shoes off and feet on the chair next to my desk, I dialed Monica at work. "Still on for dinner? How was your day?"
She knew my voice as she had for the nearly five years we’d been close friends. "I may be late. How was the first big day? No, wait, tell me when we get to McKinneys or I’ll never get out of here. I’m so behind."
The waiter brought Monica to my table, twenty minutes after I arrived. I could always count on her being late, but didn’t tease her anymore. She was pale with frightening dark circles under her eyes.
"You’re not sleeping?"
"Oh, do I look that bad? This new inhaler seems to keep me wired and I’ve used it several times today— oh, never mind that. I want to hear about your day."
I looked into the precious face of my dear friend, the mother of my dead fiancé. Suddenly a panic rose within me. For an instant I felt her gone from my life. She could be dying. I couldn’t find any words.
"Hannah, are you OK? Something happen?"
Smile and exhale! I screamed to myself. She needs you to be strong and positive. "I’m weary, but fine and my day was fine. I had a great lunch with my team. It feels so good to say that."
She continued to study my face, gently smiled and nodded, like she approved. Monica always seemed to really see me, even through transitions of mood. "You seem happy."
"I can’t believe this is happening." I put my hand on my heart. "I’m so full of plans and ideas I could burst, but I have to introduce changes wisely. I keep hearing Marc say, ‘Take it gradually, babe’."
"That sounds like my son." We sighed in unison. Monica leaned forward, taking a deep breath, "So, tell me everything from the beginning."
The waitress came three times attempting to take our order as I detailed my day beginning with the spill on the elevator. I was flushed with the warmth of our friendship and affection as we laughed together about the garage-sale joke and she agreed that Marc would have laughed the loudest. Her expression transitioned to concern as I told her about the brief visit from Jan and I watched her attempt to read Jan’s reactions and attitude as I described them.
"Tell me again about your plans for the department, Hannah. What will you want to talk with your staff about Friday?"
Linda Heiberg is at work on a sequel to In The Way of Love. She lives in Battery Park City, Manhattan.