It happened almost thirty years ago, in Romania, when I had to be hospitalized in another city than my own, at about the age of nine. It wasn’t the first time, and it would not be the last.
It was late fall, or winter. A few yards from my bed, in the room in front of mine, there was this young woman, who, as I was to find out, came to the hospital long before me and kept returning there long after I had left. She disgusted me. She was skin and bone, and her mouth was always opened, with her swollen tongue always outside, being forced to constantly wipe her drool. We were unwillingly looking at each other almost every time I would go out of my room. That annoyed the hell out of me. I could not stand that drooling creature looking at me.
She was one of the few people who had their own television set with them, brought from home. It was a small TV, black and white, but for me that didn’t matter. Back then, I was obsessed with television. It was right after the 1989 Revolution and the one TV station we had started to broadcast cartoons in the evenings. I haven’t seen many cartoons before, as the programming was limited to a few hours a day, consisting mostly of Ceaușescu’s speeches.
A day or two later, the woman had to go home, for a short time. She wanted to leave me the TV. I was overjoyed. She was finally good at something, I thought then. My mother (who was with me all the time), however, refused her offer categorically, so in the end, I begrudgingly refused too.
I don’t remember if it was that year’s Christmas, or another year’s when my mother called her, to wish her happy holidays (my mother always exchanged telephone numbers with other patients). Her husband picked up. She had died. Cancer. She was a little over thirty years old.
Obviously, at that age I didn’t truly learn anything. There was no sudden enlightenment, no epiphany or something like that. Sure, I felt a little guilty about thinking that way about her, but that was about it. The true realization came gradually and slowly. As I became older than the woman, that encounter stayed with me. In time, I have become increasingly aware of my shallowness and felt truly sorry about the way I thought and reacted toward her. In a way, this formed my identity – to look beyond appearances, to try to see what is essential, what is truly meaningful and what truly matters. I only cared about myself and my needs. The dying woman only cared about making other people’s lives happier. Unbeknownst to her, her actions changed a selfish little boy, and thus her spirit lives on in me, through my constant struggle to be a better person.
Strangely, now I remember more her (physical) beauty than the disfigurement brought on by the disease. She still was a beautiful woman, all around.
My new book, Ten Seconds, is now out and ready for you to read it (a collection of ten stories, of which two have appeared on this blog, while the other eight are brand new).