Everybody has a story.
Each story is different, but most are the same. In reality, the only ones that are different are the ones that you stop for a few moments to listen to.
The problem was that I was not a good listener. My story had interacted with that of others for over 30 years now. At first, it was just with my sister and my parents. Then a couple of siblings joined the story circle and we created our own chapters with each other.
Five years later, my storybook interacted with Ms. Williams. She was really the only one that I remember from my Kindergarten class. Every year after that is now but a blur and I never really expected that my story would ever stand out.
All of that changed when I went off to college, but that in itself is not quite true. The first year or two covered the basics and a few elective classes until I finally decided what I wanted to do with my life. I would go into nursing, then maybe into pre-med with my sights on eventually becoming a doctor.
I graduated with my B.Sc. in Nursing before making the decision that I did not want to become a doctor. Instead, I would become a Physician’s Assistant, or a PA as they were called for shorthand.
After graduating with my degree, I passed my exams with flying colors and was now a fully licensed PA. I felt that I had reached the best that I could be.
Sadly, my biggest obstacle to being the best ended up being me.
Like many nurses and doctors, what I did was just a job. It was a career, but my people skills and bedside manner could be abrupt. It was not that I did not like my job, but something was missing and I realized that it was compassion.
I could sympathize with the pain that my patients endured, but I could not really empathize. For the most part, I had lived a sheltered life and I had also been blessed with good health. Ultimately, the difference needed to build a true rapport was to have an understanding of the patient. It was not really something that I had been taught in school. Oh, there were plenty of quizzes, exams, and papers that showed I knew the material, but none of those items ever told my instructors whether I was endowed with compassion or not.
However, I will never forget the summer of 1997 when my storybook took a turn I could never have seen coming. Like most young people, I enjoyed times when I could party, but I also liked my precious moments of solitude. When I was in my little zone, I didn’t want music being played and I always insisted that my housemates kept quiet.
To try and block out any extra noise, I had splurged in my sophomore year of university and bought an expensive pair of noise-cancelling earphones that I saw advertised on a flight back home. Strangely, I have yet to use them to listen to a single bit of music. Now ten years later, they were only used to enhance the silence.
My grades did not put me at the top of my class, but I would consider myself to be better than average. Despite what the admissions counselors had told me, maybe the nursing field was not as diverse for males as I had expected. With that as a caveat and despite the supposed shortage of male medical staff, it was another couple of months before I was offered a position as the resident PA for a large nursing and rehabilitation center in upstate New York.
Being the only PA on staff, my hours were long with some weeks requiring me to work six or seven days in order to keep up with the patients.
Every person in the medical profession will tell you that there are some aspects of the job that you love and some aspects that you hate. The one thing I hated was the nights I was stationed on the Delta Wing of the facility. It was noisy and it did not seem to matter what time of the day or night I worked.
At times, I would sneak into a room thinking my patients would be asleep and turn down their stereo or the television that blared out another set of obnoxious infomercials. The first few months that I tried this, I remember being sternly reprimanded by some of my patients. It appeared that the only way they could sleep was to have the tv or radio on. While on evening shift, I could even wear my headphones that helped to reduce the noise to a bare minimum. I justified wearing them to anybody who asked by saying that I had sensitive hearing.
As for me, I enjoyed getting off and going back to my home where I could relax and listen to silence.
Winter was definitely coming and the crisp breezes of evening were joined by chilly mornings and late afteernoons. I knew that snow was coming, but I also loved the snow because it brought a new level of quiet upon the countryside.
I will never forget that first year in my new job. Thanksgiving came and went with many of my patients never getting a visit from family. That was hard for me to see, but I knew Christmas was coming and thought that everybody would receive gifts or a card in remembrance of the season.
For the most part everybody did with the exception of Yosef, Leona, and Michael. When it came time to have the Christmas parties, each patient was invited to join, but these three remained in their rooms or sat together watching their tv’s as they blared in full volume.
I asked my colleagues why no family ever visited them, but few seemed to provide a qualified answer. Walking into Michael’s room one evening about a week before Christmas, I noticed a small emblem on his dresser and realized that it was a Star of David.
That certainly explained a great deal, I thought to myself as I ran my fingers along each edge of the plain trinket. Over in the corner, the television was trying to convince parents to buy just one more “must-have” gift for their spoiled children, but I had tuned those out long ago.
Continuing my rounds, I walked into Yosef’s room followed by that of Leona. Taking an extra moment, I looked around and saw the same emblems that Michael had displayed.
Turning to go, I felt a soft touch on the sleeve of my lab coat. It startled me as I thought the old lady was sound asleep. Pulling off my headphones, I took her withered old hand in mind.
“Leona, are you not feeling well? You should be asleep.”
“Dr. Macomb, do you have time to sit with me for a few minutes?
Glancing at the television, I noticed it had shifted from infomercials to another Christmas movie that really had nothing to do with Christmas.
I sighed and replied, “Yes, for just a few minutes.”
Leona nodded her appreciation and I sat down beside her bed and together we listened to the incessant drone of the bad actors on the screen.
A slight squeeze caused me to turn my attention back to my patient.
“Dr. Macomb, may I ask you a question?” Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “Why do you wear the headphones all the time? I can tell they are not connected to anything, so you cannot be listening to music.”
“Leona, that is a great question. I will answer but I get to ask you a question. I wear them because I love silence. I do not want to listen to music or noise all the time, and even when I am at home, I can wear them for hours and enjoy the quiet.”
A brief nod before she replied, “What is your question, Doctor?”
“I do not want to be rude, but why do you, Yosef, and Michael all like to play your radios or televisions loudly every hour of the day?”
A range of emotions crossed her face and she turned away from me toward the opposite wall. It was a few moments before she spoke again.
“Dr. Macomb, the reason is simple. All three of us come from the same little town. We went to school together, played in the streets together, and even skated together on the rivers when they froze in the winter.”
“But one day, our whole lives were turned upside down. War had been declared and although we did not really understand what that meant, the look on the faces of the adults made us afraid.”
“Every week, things grew worse and before long we were no longer allowed to play outside. The electricity would often go out and we ate many meals cold instead of being cooked, and I soon forgot the taste of hot oatmeal.”
“At night, the darkness would fall upon our town and we learned to have a healthy fear of the silence that surrounded us.”
“If we spoke too loudly, our parents would scold us and sometimes might even give us a quick smack in order to remind us to keep silent. I hated the long nights, but what I hated the worse was when we would be woken up and had to go and hide behind the extra wall that Papa had built in the early days of the war. The silence would be deafening. Sometimes soldiers would come. We could hear them, but they never heard us.”
“However, all of that changed one dreadful night. The moon was hidden and winter was quickly approaching. We never heard music any more, and I had not seen Yosef or Michael in two or three months. The silence seemed to overwhelm us as we hid behind the wall that night. And then it happened.”
“What happened, Leona?” I asked this intriguing old lady.
“My sister sneezed. She tried to hold it in, but it just slipped out. In just a few moments, the wall was being torn down and the soldiers pulled us out. As we turned to go, the night reverberated with the sounds of the solders’ boots on the cobblestones.”
Leona shuddered repeatedly as she recalled the nightmares of that night. She told me of the blackness being broken by bursts from semi-automatic weapons. If anybody screamed, they would also be shot.
“That was the last time I saw Papa and Mama for the soldiers left them lying face down on the street along with several other neighbors. I whimpered and bit down hard on my lips so that I would not cry. I looked around the truck where they had seated us and in the flashes of light from the torches carried by the soldiers, I saw Yosef and Michael.”
“Dr. Macomb, by now, you have probably guessed by my story and by my accent that I am not from America. The three of us are from a small village in Poland. We managed to survive the death camps together, and I think it is only because we were young, but old enough to help with certain chores.”
Leona’s lips began to quiver and tears coursed down her cheeks as she continued her story.
“Every night, the lights would come on and silence was required. If we were caught speaking, the solders would kill several of the children. We soon learned to endure the silence. There was no more laughter. If we cried, we cried into the crook of our arms so we would not be heard.”
“Rumors began to circulate that the Americans were coming and before long, the big bombers would fly over the camp. I had been in the camp for about two years and I began to understand more of what happened throughout the week in other parts of the camp.”
“Trains would come into the prison and thousands would fall out of the cattle cars. Their luggage would be piled into great heaps and each person had to take all of their clothes off. There was no modesty and anybody that protested would be immediately shot.”
I had read enough history to know where Leona’s story was headed, but I could no longer speak. My head and heart were already condemning me for my callous thoughts and actions.
“Dr. Macomb, at the far end of our camp, each new load of prisoners would exit the train and be marched to the brick buildings at the end. When the building was full, we could hear the screaming, but soon there was nothing but silence. Nobody spoke as the guards demanded help in removing the dead bodies from the rooms. Yosef and Michael were required to help move them and they would whisper to me later about what was going on.”
“You see, Dr. Macomb, in the end, our families and friends were killed because of the silence. Nobody said anything about the others disappearing until they came for us. When they came for us, it was too late and there was nobody left to help or listen.”
“So, you ask why we do not turn our televisions or radios down. Doctor, it is because we fear the silence. We fear that if it is too quiet, we will hear the cries of those who died around us. We fear that if the silence comes again that more will die because we do not ever seem to learn from history.”
Tears streamed down my own face as I pondered the hell that these three loud patients must have endured. I patted Leona’s hand until she fell asleep.
The rest of the night passed but I never lifted my headphones back to my ears. I had learned a valuable lesson in the art of knowing the pain of others.
As my shift came to a conclusion, I made one more set of rounds just as dawn broke over the eastern sky. Returning to Leona’s room, I realized that she had passed quietly in her sleep. Her face radiated a sense of peace and I knew that somewhere in the dark that she had crossed into a place where she no longer had to fear the silence.
Returning home, I savored each bite of my hot oatmeal, turned the television on, and promptly fell asleep.
Written in response to Warrior Writers Prompt #27