“Are you here for your feet?”

The voice was shy, a little quavery, and I couldn’t find its owner with a quick scan of Kaiser’s orthopedics waiting room. It was late in the day and the place was pretty much deserted, so it shouldn’t have been hard to find. 

I was there yesterday for my three-month total knee replacement check-up, a milestone. Any seriously nasty complications should have happened by now, so this check-up is where the surgeon is supposed to rubber-stamp your progress with nice words like “yup, it worked,” and “cut back on the rest of the meds, Cynthia,” and “try to be more of a stranger from now on.” (IOW… yeeeeHAH!)

“I said,” repeated the voice, patiently, “Are you here for your feet? To see the podiatrist?”

This time a head popped out from behind a high-backed loveseat* on the other side of the room. A little old guy grinned at me, eyes twinkling, and I grinned back.

“Hi!” I said brightly, “Nope, I’m here for orthopedics. Follow-up on my knee replacement.”

“Ahhhh,” he said knowingly, “You didn’t look like a foot patient.”

He had a bit of a beard and a Nike tracksuit with the hoodie turned down. His newspaper was opened to the crossword puzzle, halfway filled in, “but it’s more interesting to talk. I can always save the puzzle for later.”

He tucked the paper into his coat pocket, stood up and wandered over to the seat beside me. Then he held out his hand for a shake, and sat down. “Hi. Name’s Charlie.”

“Hello, Charlie. I’m Cynthia.”

He’d lived in the Northwest all his life, started out working in a lumber mill up north, didn’t much like it, came south to try his hand at business and find a pretty girl to marry.

“Did pretty well at marriage, made some friends, made some enemies, had some good kids, made a good living. The usual thing, nothing special,” Charlie said, “Lot easier than manhandling big logs through a saw and getting drunk on Saturdays. Lot less dangerous, too.”

He seemed interested in just how my knee was progressing, marveled at its normal appearance. “Three months, and it doesn’t look swollen at all,” he marveled, “There was a lady in here about an hour ago, and hers was as big as a cantaloupe. She had two RNs living with her in a trailer and boy, she was miserable. Of course, she had both knees done at the same time. Your knee looks like it was a piece of cake.”

“Thanks,” I said modestly. (I haven’t quite gotten the whole fake knee protocol down yet–seems like thanks isn’t exactly in order but I’m not sure what else to say.)

“I had surgery too, only last year,” he said, “Got my heart valve replaced. The doctor noticed I was tired all the time, told me that valve was leaking blood. He replaced it, and that was a long, hard recovery. It took me several months to get over it. And what do you think they used on me?”

“An artificial valve?”

“Nope. A pig valve! From a real pig! I had a friend, he’s dead now, he was Jewish Orthodox and he couldn’t eat pork. I asked the doctor what he would do if my friend had to have a pig valve and he said they would get a rabbi to give them permission.”

Charlie shook his head. “Crazy things these doctors do, right? My pig valve isn’t as good as a real valve, because I still get tired sometimes, but doc says it’s because I don’t do all the exercises. You better do all the exercises they give you, right? But sometimes,” he sighed, “It’s just too much trouble.”

“Are you here for your heart valve?” I asked, wondering if he had the wrong department.

“Nope, I’m here for the bereavement class.”


“Yeah, bereavement. For death. We’re going to be meeting twice a month and this is my first class.”

His face stilled and grew empty, then his eyes rose to mine. I heard Sandra the nurse call my name, but I couldn’t look away from him. Not right then.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly, “I lost my dad a few weeks ago; it’s hard. Who have you lost?”

“Everyone,” he said, eyes starting to fill, “Everyone. There’s no one left. My kids are gone, my friends have died, my wife, she’s dead, too.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. Why do we get this damnable need to fix stuff like this when the only real fix is ‘way past our pay grade? The only thing I can do is sit for a minute, and listen.

Or at least that’s all I did.

“I have a dog, you know,” he said, “He’s a good dog, and he’s not very old. He’s not going anywhere, I don’t think. He listens. It’s not really the same, but he’s a good dog. He’s a good companion. And I think this class is going to help.”

“I hope so,” I said, “Good luck.” We shook hands, then hugged.

“Your shoulder’s wet,” said Sandra, as we headed back to the exam room. I told her what happened; she went out to escort Charlie to his class.

When I came out later, he’d gone.

*I’m not sure why Kaiser puts these loveseats in their waiting rooms, but they have backs and sides at least 3 feet tall so it’s easy to hide in them. You could stick two of these chairs together, fronts facing, to make a fort. I considered doing exactly that in the days when I regarded my surgeon as that guy with Elmo-the-knee replacement in one hand, hacksaw in the other.

Update: A couple of people have asked privately if the artwork is a picture of the real Charlie and nope, it’s not. I took this picture (using a real film camera) quite some time ago. It’s actually of an old friend selling magazines outside my office in Boston. His name was Charlie, too, and he was one of those Irish guys from Southie, rough around the edges with a heart of gold.

He used to kid me to death–you couldn’t get him to shut up and he had a temper like an angry hornet–but sometimes a headline or a picture in one of his magazines would catch his eye, and he’d grow quiet and rather sad. I was snapping away at the fall leaves once when that happened, and I got this picture. It’s a very close crop of a much bigger image–Charlie is standing in front of a chain-linked fence and there are magazines flapping in the breeze–but the expression on his face was what I was after.

I went back to Charlie’s newsstand right before I moved away and he was gone. The guy who’d taken over the stand told me that Charlie had had a heart attack, getting off the T (the Boston subway) on the way to the newsstand, died right there on the sidewalk, and that was that. I never knew if he had a wife or kids or anything. I guess I never thought to ask.

As I was writing this story last night I thought of Charlie-who-had-the-heart-attack, which put me in mind of this shot. So I dug it out of mothballs, scanned it into the computer and started playing with Photoshop. I made it green for Charlie’s Irish.