“If you could be known for anything, what would you want it to be?” I remember hearing that question several times in grade school, though it may have manifested itself in different ways, such as “what do you want to be when you grow up” or “what do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” (Which incidentally, that last one makes me think of that joke that ends with “Look! He’s breathing!” I don’t care who you are. That’s funny.) Regardless of how it’s phrased, the question is the same. What do you want to be known for? I am yet to meet a person that really doesn’t care about the answer to this question. “I hope that when my life ends I will have made not one single contribution to the human race, all the while living a life of obscurity and ambiguity, resulting in a silent passing in the night whose effect is only measured by the space it takes to write about it in the Obituary section.” We just don’t say this. I think the truth is, we really do care what we’re known for. We care deeply. We try hard. Really hard.
When I was ten, I had some stomach issues. I’m not talking about the “I ate too much and if I see another fast food commercial on TV it’s going to get ugly” type of stomach issues. I used to get these ridiculously terrible pains in my stomach that resulted in a visit to the Emergency Room. This happened multiple times but I only remember one of the incidents clearly. This particular night I woke up with some discomfort in the basket. The discomfort quickly escalated into a pain that can only be described as a cross between getting stabbed in the gullet with a Ginzu knife and someone parking their camper in your small intestine. It became clear that this was not going away, nor was I going to wait and see. I came to a conclusion; I needed to call in backup. I started down the hallway to my parent’s bedroom to wake someone up. I paused at the door. Entering my parent’s room was always an uncomfortable moment. Not necessarily because of that, but rather because their room was somewhat off limits and I never really understood why. I imagined it would be like the movies where someone opens a door and a blinding white light reveals a room ablaze with poker tables, a three ring circus, or a herd of galloping minotaurs. As I stood there outside the door, hearing no hooves and smelling no cotton candy, I proceeded to quietly turn the knob and open the door. I made my way through the dark past my dad, who was immoveable once asleep, to my mom’s side of the bed. Bending down in order to position my face several inches from hers, I whispered “Mom!” After my mom put her skin back on, she informed me it would be better if I would just “jiggle the knob” and enter the room loudly rather than sneaking up and scaring her half to death. This seemed logical enough, though it didn’t really answer the minotaur question.
“What is it, Matthew?”
My mom brought me in to the ER late that night. I was writhing in pain but doing my best to appear like it didn’t hurt that much but still hurt enough that I belong there. You don’t want to hoot and holler so that all the people in the waiting room begin whispering, trying to figure out what in the world could possibly be wrong, while all the small children bury their faces in mom or dad’s jacket sleeve from the sheer horror of the situation. On the other hand, you don’t want to stroll in as if you mistook the hospital for a mall while doing some light shopping before taking in a movie. It’s a sensitive balance really. After a short wait and a long clipboard, my mom and I approached the counter. I continued rehearsing just what I would say over and over again in my head. This is critical. You don’t want to leave with fewer parts than you came with.
“How can we help you”?
“Directions to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, please.” “Genie in a bottle with three, no four wishes!” “World peace and giant biceps.” There are many answers to such a question but I imagine she was speaking medically and so that is how I approached the question. Here was the problem in that moment. Talking with the nurse next to mine was another person in line who was one step ahead of me in explaining why he was there. Correction: he was accompanied by a police officer who was so kind as to describe for this patient why he was visiting the ER that night. The patient was a young white male. I don’t know how old he was but I assumed he was in his late teens, as he had facial hair that I at ten and my brother at thirteen didn’t. He was wearing baggy clothes and a bandana on his head. Just below the bandana was a large gauze pad he was holding tightly to his forehead. His face had various other scrapes and cuts. I remember hearing the police officer describe the details of the “gang fight” this upstanding young man had been a part of. It was enough to make an already burning stomach queasy. The nurse then proceeded to ask him a long list of seemingly unnecessary questions. Now I’ve never been in a gang fight (it’s on the bucket list), but I’m pretty sure that the date of the last measles vaccination is irrelevant. That is, unless the opposing gang was birthed under the banner of spreading measles throughout the entire tri-state region. In that case a measles vaccination would be very appropriate. After the nurse was finished gathering information (he’s a Capricorn and enjoys long walks on the beach), it was gang fight boy’s turn to share. In his account of the incident, he mentioned getting hit in the head with a lead pipe, hence the gauze pad and steady direct pressure. Man, a lead pipe to the head. I’m sure that hurt like the Dickens, but what a story!
“How can we help you?”
This was directed at me. It was my turn to reveal my ailment…my “battle scar.” Suddenly my pre-rehearsed story just sounded lame. To make matters worse, as gang fight boy awaited further instructions, he was now turned toward me. All of the sudden, I just wanted to go home. I didn’t care that my stomach hurt. I didn’t care that my mom had to recount our family’s medical history back to the early 19th century in order for me to be seen by a nurse. I just wanted go back to bed in hopes I could sleep it off. I didn’t want to stand there and declare out loud “My mommy brought me here because my tum tum is ouchy ouchy!”
I didn’t want the handcuffs or throbbing skull…but I sure wanted the lead pipe.
I don’t remember clearly how the rest played out. I do, however, remember being sent home with a diagnosis of “spastic colon.” Which I believe is cause for question…how did the word “spastic” ever come out of the medical community as a part of an official diagnosis? What are they even trying to say? I picture a colon hopped up on Red Bull that won’t stop babbling about the time it ran into the small intestine in a Wal-Mart in Florida. Sorry. That made no sense whatsoever. Colons would never vacation in Florida.
Anyhow, I can’t help but wonder, why was it so difficult for me to just admit what was really going on? I had issues. Who cares? Truth be told, I care. I care deeply. I try hard. Really hard. And I would be willing to guess I’m not the only one. Somehow I think we believe that all of the things we don’t like about ourselves, the things we fear others stumbling upon, the very things that hold us back, that these are what we will be known for. I am fairly certain “He had a spastic colon” will not be written in my obituary, but I still protected that sensitive information like a manila folder in a spy movie. For some reason in that moment in that hospital, I feared the rejection of a complete stranger who I would never share a single exchange of words with. Why? Because that is what insecurity does in us. We feel if this or that were to ever get out and come into the light, we would be exposed for what we truly are. And, when what we truly are is finally known, most certainly there is no one that could like us, dare love us. So we let others skim the surface, revealing just enough to make them like us but not enough to risk they won’t. We are the little boy in the shallow end convincing ourselves that the deep end is not worth the possibility of failing the swim test and looking stupid in front of the entire watching world. So we splash around in chest-high water, with the glimmer of the diving board in full view. We give in to our fears, letting them tell us who we are, who we will be, what we have become, all the while ignoring the one legitimate fear living among us…the fear of never being.