I hate this place. How is it possible to hate what you’re thankful for?
I haven’t worked out all the details yet. Some questions are better after caffeine anyway, so I pour a cup of coffee so piping hot, it requires coursework in advanced thermodynamics. I sip with trepidation, a squint-eyed geologist exploring bitter magma. I burn my mouth anyway. Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday to you, scalded taste buds. May your next forty-whatever years know less reckless mistreatment.
Breakfast in the Ronald McDonald House is governed by a flurry of choices. I shouldn’t have to make smart decisions this morning. I’m too tired for it. But you do have to be on your guard. A buffet of cinnamon rolls and an armada of donut holes beckon. They’re likely to go to waste if I don’t eat them. It’s practically irresponsible not to. Sweet, glazed comfort lounges suggestively all over the counter. A bowl full of reproachful apples and glaring bananas await my decision. Everybody likes bananas; but sugar is better. I start to reach for the baked goods, and even the anthropomorphic cricket painted on the wall mural smiles encouragingly: Good choice, sir. And good morning. Another lovely day to you. May all your wishes come true. Frogs on lily pads sing their silent approval, complete with musical notes over their heads.
As I reach, someone shuffles past the door to the kitchen. I jerk my hand back like I was reaching for something healthy – the fruit. Oh, hypocrisy, thou great motivator. So the die is cast. I’m healthy today. Seems appropriate. This July day reminds me over and over that I’m getting older, that eventually, I’m going to have to learn to take care of this temple. Eventually. I get a bowl of yogurt, some frozen berries, whole-grain toast. Some organic peanut butter. I don’t know who donates all this stuff, but it’s better than we eat at home. Who can afford nine dollars a jar for peanut butter? Or the time it takes to stir back together once the oil separates? I can. I’ll eat the free peanut butter; I’ll be glad for a few more minutes’ delay; and I’ll congratulate myself on my healthy, self-disciplined choices.
A woman in pajamas stumbles into the kitchen. This is another of breakfast’s decisions: I had tried to time my arrival so I wouldn’t run into any of the other parents, but it’s always a complete gamble. Sometimes you win an empty kitchen, but folks come in and out of here at all hours. This morning, I lose. I sneak a look at her. She’s disheveled: her hair is a mess, slippers, sweatshirt, and a thousand-yard stare. I saw her husband yesterday, I think. Could have been the day before. He was sporting a three day beard, like me. He and I chatted a little that day, how long they’d been in, how his kid was doing. The usual. But today I don’t feel much like talking. I don’t have anything to say, and I don’t feel like listening. With some parents, you never know what you’re going to get – or what they’re looking for. Many are quiet. But there are a few Pollyanna types, full of bright optimism and saccharine platitudes. “You’ll probably be out in time for school.” “It’ll be alright.” You can tell the ones who are fresher here. The rookies. They have more energy and are more talkative. The ones who have been in weeks or months, they get in, get their food, and get out. I make eye contact with the rumpled woman as she grabs a pastry, shrugs and heads back out. I exhale relief.
I notice that I keep sitting at the same seat at the same table. There are other choices, but this one lets me keep an eye on the time and on the door, in case there’s someone coming in. I check my phone and try not to think about the day. Let there be another moment of peace and quiet, a moment of precious indulgence before the needles, pumps, and IVs; before doctors, their endless questions, conjectures, and evasions; before unutterable regimens of medications; before vigilance baptized in grief, another weary day of watching over my boy, his body.
The clock over the door starts whirring, chiming out the hour and a song. I choke on my coffee, instinctively flinching. Idiot. I didn’t check the time when I came in. Of all the rookie mistakes: Never, Ever eat on the hour.
Like everything else in here, down to the donuts, the bananas, and the singing-smiling-cricket-and-frog wall mural, some well-meaning, generous soul donated this infernal clock. It’s meant to be cheery. I get it. Its whirring brass counterweights spin dizzy, cheery circles. Cheery children permanently smile down from the clock face. And on the hour, every hour, tinkling brass chimes plink unwelcome, discordant cheery muzak schmaltz. For forty-five seconds. Barry Manilow meets It’s A Small World After All meets Mary Poppins – all brightly refusing to let their cheery cheer be drowned even in the wash of three industrial refrigerators fans. Indomitable. Impossible. Insufferable. Forty-five seconds is long enough for coffee to turn cold. It’s long enough to hate this place all over again. No birthday chorus for you today, my man. Enjoy your clock. I can’t even name the tune it’s grinding out.
When it’s done, I scoop an angry spoonful of yogurt and decide that the berries were better yesterday. It’s time to get saddled up, pull my cranky, old, reluctantly healthy, well-cheered self into action – and I’m surprised to hear the clock start a second time. My head snaps up, and I glare threats at it, daring the clock to keep going. My kids know this look, but the clock? The clock remains defiantly blissful and keeps whanging away its apparently magical encore. I can’t make sense of it. I’ve never heard two songs on the hour before. But something is different. This second tune is quieter, and almost against my better judgment, I cock my ear. Now that I listen, it’s much quieter.
Wait. It can’t be. Could it? This isn’t a second song, it’s a second clock! Somebody donated another god-awful clock just to make me miserable? Seriously, people, come on! This thing is just as mad as a hatter and equally insufferable in its goodwill toward men! You’ve got to be kidding me.
I don’t see it on any of the walls, and it sounds muffled, like… the prep room. Only staff uses that door. It’s got to be in the prep room, chiming away. Except I recognize this tune. I can’t quite place it, and it’s a torment. If I could name the demon, it might go away. But I can’t, so I listen, straining to hear the notes.
Christmas music! In July, I’m listening to Christmas music. No wonder I couldn’t place it. Joy to the World. And then I start remembering the lyrics:
Joy to the world/The Lord is come.
A herald, as if from another world, on the other side of the prep room door:
Joy to the world/Let earth receive her king/Let every heart prepare Him room.
What? Here? Are you talking about me? Birthday Boy in the Ronald McDonald House?
And heaven and nature sing/and heaven and nature sing/and heaven and na-ture sing.
(Sing, even in sorrow, even in hospitals, or else the stones and refrigerators and wall clocks will cry out.)
Are you sure, Jesus? You might not like what you hear.
(Yes. Sing whatever you are given and leave the rest to Me.)
No more let sins and sorrow grow/nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make his blessings flow/far as the curse is found/far as the curse is found/far as, far as, the curse is found.
The curse, Jesus, is upstairs. I’m headed up there. It’s through the halls, up the elevator, and on the fifth floor, in the PICU. Then again, it’s also on the fourth floor, and the third, and the second, the first, in the pharmacy, and in the lobby. And quite frankly, in me. You know that.
As far as the curse is found/the wonders of his love/the wonders, the wonders/of his love.
Is this true, Jesus? Please, can it be?
(Yes, very. As far as curse is found, I will restore, you, your boy, and all things.)
(Yes, all. But for the moment this is for you today, from Me: Happy Birthday. The King has come. The King will come. The King is here.)
Dave Saville is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. He writes out of Tampa, FL.