Empathetic smiling

Everyone in here is so very, very kind.

People, complete strangers, are so caring, so cajoling, so well meaning, so bloody jolly, I can’t stand it! Worst of all is their damned empathetic smiling, so fucking smug, like they’re quietly pleased it isn’t them with the dicky heart and dodgy spine. Bastards! Would it really castrate their bottomless pity to treat me like a normal human being? Worse than worst, they smell of alcohol wipes.

It works like this: he or she, it’s mostly a she (I don’t know why, and I don’t care). Anyway, she notices the wheelchair first because it’s hard to miss and also because it’s in her way. Then she takes in my stooped shoulders, then the pain etched into my face and the gritted teeth. She bends at the hips, like a demented rag doll to catch my bashful eye. It’s hard to ignore someone when their face is about two inches from my nose. A reddish flush spreads from her neck along the jawbone to the cheeks and into her ears. Cranked over like that, she heaves a sigh, crushing me with her bosom, and her face scrunches up like a new-born baby about to wail.

Wait for it, take a moment, because the finale is about to begin. Ah, there it is! The quivering. It begins with her chin, like she’s being slowly tasered. She shivers and jitters until the entire facial landscape is a blur from which she launches a tight-lipped-eyes-half-closed grimace, a walnut-wrinkly nose at the centre. That is empathetic smiling!

But, it doesn’t end there. As a final embarrassment, comes the dance. A waggle dance; arms straight, palms turned outwards, legs unbending, her body rocking from side to side, shoulders pressed back, over-emphasising the charade of giving me the widest berth possible. She is the picture of a security guard keeping crowds at bay from a superstar only, in this case, I am a superstar in a wheelchair with a broken back and heart disease.

Ah, here comes Graham the Orthopaedic Surgeon who’s been plaguing me all morning. He tends towards rotundity, has floppy reddish-mousey hair, trousers way too tight around the calves and no belt. How does that work? Trousers have belt loops for a reason! And, he beams like a chimpanzee, all the time, at everyone, at anything. Walls, toilet doors, lab reports bringing bad news. His smile is more of a lop-sided grin from a mouth that’s simultaneously trying to shout around a corner. On top of that, to make himself more attractive to girls, boys, don’t care, mostly to himself I think, he stretches his eyes wide, just a fraction, so they catch the light and glint. Far from the desired effect, he looks like a coke addict about to commit murder.

Credit where it’s due, he knows his job. As soon as I arrived on the ward in the early hours of the morning, he ordered some urgent tests and now, presumably, he’s rushed straight from the lab to deliver the results himself. He even helps me into the hospital bed so I’ll be more comfortable. How kind.

He’s loitering, doing that steppy thing designed by moronic bit-part actors to illustrate thoughtful indecision. One step towards the window then one towards the door, going nowhere. His nose buried in my medical notes, flicking through pages of graphs and numbers. He slows down, looks out the window, grunts and heaves like a boudoir madam scrutinising a dodgy clients’ credentials. Finally, he turns to face me and his smile is now impossibly wide and white, his cheeks plump as tennis balls, only this time, by contrast, his eyes are dark and shadowy.

It’s a complicated affair, this empathetic smiling, it conveys many commingled messages: pleasure, pity, gratefulness, guilt, humility, pride and censorship.  But the overriding characteristic is a hunger to be seen to understand the human condition and to recognise the difference from “the norm” forced upon the beneficiary, on me. In a calm, precise and an un-sparkling manner, Graham tells me I have degenerative bone disease. But I must consider myself one of the lucky ones because he wouldn’t have been able to make the diagnosis so readily if my ribs hadn’t been broken when the paramedics performed CPR.

So, two irrepressible diseases in one body.  Marvellous.

© Rivenrod 2020

Picture: Tears of a Clown: remastered by Rod McRiven

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