December 2017 – January 2018

The Medicine

by Karen Hitchcock

Some days

Some days, nothing comes easy

Some days are pessimistic. You walk out the front door and overnight your bicycle’s become a reckless and lethal means of transport, so you walk to the tram stop grumbling and dodging pedestrians with eyes in their phones. Your clothes pinch and crease, your shoes are unstable, and your hair’s kinked all wrong. You’re crushed at the stop, then crushed on board. Gargantuan private-school backpacks bruise your ribs, people sneeze in your face, and when you try to look out of the only window that’s not plastered with ads the guy sitting in front of it warily looks up from his screen every few seconds because he thinks you’re staring at him. So you stare at your knuckles white-gripping the pole. It’s all noxious stimuli and you know the wards will be overflowing with social catastrophes you can’t possibly fix and surely there was some other job you could have chosen? One that involved staying at home in your pyjamas, breezily chain-smoking (because you haven’t seen up close all those people drowning in air their lungs can no longer reap). A job where the boss wouldn’t haul you in for being consistently three to eight minutes late (bad role modelling for the juniors). Bins everywhere overflow with the disposable and your registrar cheerfully tells you she’s aiming for a single jam jar of rubbish per week. Which reminds you to stop at the supermarket on the way home to buy food that is palatable, nutritious and can be prepared in three to eight minutes for your children’s dinner. Which reminds you that you’ll be carrying it home in single-use plastic or adding to a collection of 99-cent reusable bags so mammoth it can no longer be housed. A jam jar’s so small. Your registrar’s optimism is glorious and exhausting and you are disinclined to see Planet Landfill as anything other than strange and tedious. Too far gone. The planet, your patients, your colleagues. You.

If there’s a disease whose symptoms are a complete lack of social energy coupled with a complete lack of knowing what the hell to do with yourself, you definitely have that disease. The weary days just keep on coming. You wonder if it’s just a variety of laziness in a darkish disguise. You wonder this thought out loud to your brother, a panelbeater who has worked at least 70 hours a week since the day he became an apprentice and who says, “Kaz, any mildly evolved human being has a tendency towards laziness.” That distracts you for a few minutes. There’s an over-the-counter treatment widely available from any shelf in any bottle shop that offers rapid relief, but luckily or unluckily – depending – you find the side effects intolerable. You hope the malaise will pass. That there’ll be something that compels you to pry your face-plant off the pillow each time the sun comes up. Something that’s not bad for you.

At work you split the day into hours, and count them down. Towards the end of a consultation, a long-term patient stops at the clinic door and nervously says, “Are you thinking of quitting medicine?” The thought had crossed your mind about four thousand times, but you were pretty sure you’d kept acting normal – engaged, constructive, nodding, listening, remembering key details, ordering your patients the appropriate investigations. You hadn’t once sighed, cried, interrupted, or handed over a bullshit prescription so as to end the consultation within the allocated time. You hadn’t thrown your notes into the air or said “Fuck it.” Besides, you are genuinely very fond of her. That consultation had been the most pleasant part of your workday. You ask her why she asked and she says, “I don’t know, just a feeling.” You want to say sorry, I’m doing my best here, but you aren’t sure what you’ve done besides waking up one day to find yourself so saturated in gloom it’s apparently leaking out your pores. She tiny-touches your arm, as if it’s an ember. “Please, hang in there.” You close the door, find your eyes stinging, feel ridiculous and bet this shit never happens to the professors.

Then, after work, someone steals your dog from outside the supermarket. You’re attempting some multi-bloody-tasking (dump bag, grab dog, so you can walk dog, buy food, and be home in time to greet your children). The dog’s small and silent so you carry her into the shop but are immediately ordered out by a guy in a red uniform. So you tie her up and ten minutes later she’s gone. Everyone shrugs. You go home feeling sick. Your daughters are beside themselves, which brings on a deep ache that can only be emanating from your actual pericardium. And you’re reminded that emotions are physical sensations, and that pain is a sensation and an emotion, and you press your palm to your chest and feel a memory-of-wonder, if not outright wonder, at the mystery of it all. The ache and your daughters’ faces spur you to action. You remember that you’ve always been good in a crisis. You march back to the supermarket, howling children in tow. The man in the red uniform (guilty, sensing you are seconds away from nothing-to-lose) agrees to show you the CCTV footage – two pretty young ponytailed girls untying your family pet and hotfooting away. You film the footage on your phone without asking and call the cops (who, surprisingly, give a shit). Your daughters text the footage to their friends, one of whom lives in the nearby flats, and, yes, she saw those exact girls with the old man from downstairs. He turns out to be their granddad and confirms that, yes, they did “rescue” a small silent dog from outside the supermarket and took it home: 50 kilometres away. Everyone piles in the car and you start driving. By now it’s dark and you’re still in pinching clothes, your pulse is in your neck and no one’s eaten a thing, but no one’s crying, it’s a road trip in a movie about a miracle, and the dog, the dog is so happy to see you she jumps and spins as if the concrete is a trampoline and then – adorably, heartbreakingly – she vomits on your shoes.

Karen Hitchcock

Karen Hitchcock is a doctor and writer. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Little White Slips, and the Quarterly Essay Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly.

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