The other day, Emma looked worried. I asked her why. She told me that a relative was working through some big personal problems. Emma didn't want to elaborate.
Our family has the same dilemma, from time to time, as any other: the business of keeping, or sharing, confidences. In her situation, Emma was doing the right thing: I sensed that she had been told something and had been told to keep it to herself, and she was respecting that. She was able to confirm my instinct that she had stuff on her mind, so I didn't probe further. I didn't need to be told details. I trusted that she would let me know anything serious that might impact our family. Nor -- crucially, perhaps -- did I feel resentful that the conversation ended where it did.
It's not about keeping secrets, it's about keeping confidences at times when the mechanics of a situation see to it that, like Emma, someone needs to know something that others close to them just plain don't. If I do need to know at some point, I figure the information will usually come find me. I guess my job does me the favor of reminding me of this, during pretty much every shift:
At work there is a set of elevators. There are several sets, actually, because we're built on a hill. But whatever changes have been made to this pediatric center over recent decades, these particular elevators have stayed the same. They're workhorses. They ferry patients, families and staff up and down the unit floors all day, all night. If someone wants to grasp the sweat as well as the spirit of the place, I suggest they ride these elevators for a day. Five minutes will do.
When I ride them, what hits me are the snapshots shaped by the brevity of what I see. Snatches of stories. If you're nosy, this hospital is not the place to work. Day to day here, each of us usually sees only bits of each family's journey, however closely we work with them and however compelling the parts they are good enough to share. Even if we do witness a beginning or an end, we rarely witness -- or even hear about -- both. Nor, by law, are we allowed to find out for curiosity's sake. It's dumb even to try. Yeah: these elevators are a crash course in relinquishing the urge to know what happens next:
The doors open, and in slides a preemie infant in the center of a chunky bed. He looks, among the tubes and monitors, like a lentil in a brooch box. We travel one floor, his dad rubbing his mom's back. A nurse in teddy-bear scrubs leans over baby, and adjusts the mask on his face a tad. She murmurs: "He's mischief! I'm tellin' ya..." Both parents heave a smile onto their mouths. The heel of dad's free palm knocks again and again against dad's denim thigh. Ping. Doors open. Out they all glide.
In comes a Mexican family, a small boy with a choppy haircut interpreting for his aunt as she struggles to ask an American mom the way to the pharmacy. The lad cranes his head to hear the last of the directions as the doors slide shut. He calls out his thanks. Auntie looks stern, talks to him in rapid Spanish. I don't know what she asks or what he answers, but suddenly her face softens. The boy grins, topsy-turns a toy fire truck in his hands, and shrugs like a comedian. Now, just as quick, a small frown steals across his face. Ping. They're gone.
Three more floors to go, for me. Two young resident doctors step in: one blonde, one brunette. They are girlish, pony-tailed, and startlingly pretty. They loll against the elevator wall in the manner popularized by ballerinas on a smoke break outside stage doors. One is dangling a stethoscope between two fingers, the other jabbing at her Android.
"C'mon," she pleads with it, "get a signal."
"What's up this weekend?"
"Might do the Puyallup."
"You have energy?! Jeez, lady."
Lady has given up on her phone. She shifts her weight onto the other foot. They exchange an end-of-shift glance. The blonde doc asks her pal:
"Clinic. Outpatient Psych." She tries to rub some Sharpie ink from her palm. Then: "Did I tell you I lost my gift card to the Aveda store?"
Ping. Doors open. Her colleague says "Sucks..." and looks set to elegize on the tragedy. But as they exit, she bumps into a man with exhausted shoulders and water eyes. I know from the color of his lanyard that he's a parent. For a moment, hope jags across those eyes. The look says: "Tell me. Tell me one something. Tell me any little thing that isn't a perhaps."
The resident calls to her friend: "I'll catch you up."
Putting a subliminal touch on the man's elbow, she guides him a few yards away from the earshot of the elevator, where eight others have crammed in with me.
She needn't have bothered. The doors are already closing.