I am a person people ask directions of. Always have been. It’s been the case that any time I bicycled or walked down a street, cars would slow to ask me where they were or where they were going. Amazingly, I always knew. When I became mostly confined to my house years ago, I thought that this phenomenon might end. But no. Instead, people came to my front door, wondering where they were, and if I could help them. Were they on Almon or Asbury Street? I laughed. And accepted my fate as a direction-giver.
Sometimes I’ve been asked to be the detective. Once two young men, one dressed in a Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi-like robe, knocked on the door around lunch time. They had found a gold wallet on the sidewalk in front of my house. Was it mine? It wasn’t. They wondered what to do next. I suggested looking for a driver’s license, or a number, since they clearly were not going to steal anything out of the wallet, and seemed shy about going to the police. The picture on the license looked vaguely familiar. I had a hunch it might possibly be the girlfriend of one of the boys who lived next door to me that year. It was. We were all overjoyed, including the young woman, who was just getting up, and hadn’t yet discovered she’d lost her wallet. Case solved. That day my childhood hero, Encyclopedia Brown, had nothing on me.
One of the most delightful ones came as I awoke from a nap on the couch to the sound of the doorbell. An elderly woman and another woman who looked like her daughter stood smiling at me. The older woman had bright blue kind eyes I just knew to trust. She hated to trouble me, but could she for just a moment. She was down from Spokane, but she was pretty sure this was where she lived as a little girl many decades ago. Could she come in for a minute to see? Well of course they could come in. She looked all around and thought it might be. Or if not, the one that had been next door, now torn down and replaced by a chiropractic clinic. I think her name was Shirley. She was so grateful to me for allowing them in to see it, and that I listened to her memories of the old neighborhood. And how she used to hide in the closet under the stairs. It was easy. I was enchanted too.
The strangest one to date probably is a young man who rang the doorbell at 4 in the morning, a newly passed-out young woman over his shoulder, asking if this was her house. I had heard how drunk she was on the sidewalk, as he pleaded for her to tell him where she lived. I had to say that no, this wasn’t her house. I thought about that young man a lot afterwards, and still think of him, and how blind lucky this unconscious young woman was that it was him who was carrying her over his shoulder, trying to get her home.
People who ask me for directions on the street usually come up alongside me, or are already standing confused in front of me. So you can imagine my surprise the other evening when, out walking with Romeo, on the university campus a block from my house, I was called to from behind by a young male student. I turned about to see him scrambling with a backpack, an apple and a half-peeled banana, a notebook and a strange-looking apparatus like a tiny black flute dangling around his neck. Oh, wait, please M’am, please wait. Could he just talk to me for a moment? The half-peeled banana wiggled precariously against his green athletic jersey. Somehow, barely, he managed to hang on to all of it. I smiled. Why I’ve always loved college kids came flooding back. If this kid was going to ask me where he was, when he was the student and I was clearly the visitor, he must really be lost. But no. He was a microbiology student. He was doing a group project. They had to ask people of different age groups 3 questions. I raised my eyebrow and smiled to myself even more. Apparently a silver-haired woman walking a handsome dog on campus at five in the afternoon was a rare enough sight that he ran after what looked like his only opportunity to grab a senior citizen. Or that was my assumption.
Not being a pre-law or theater major, he fumbled with articulating his purpose, diving into the science of something or other first. I gleaned the project had something to do with cystic fibrosis, and a genetically engineered therapy his group was assigned to come up with and then ask people about. I suggested that since we were both going in the direction of the library, we walk that way while we talked. Still half out of breath from running after me, he asked if when we got there we could find a bench to sit down on so he could write my answers to his questions in his notebook. Fine, I said, as long as I don’t have to participate in a science experiment. Oh no, he said, nothing like that. He didn’t seem to realize I was half teasing him.
When we approached the library book drop, there were three other young men, apparently his friends, sitting on a concrete ledge. Hey. They all greeted each other, in that laconic signature way. They wanted to know what he was up to.
“I’m going to ask this nice lady questions for my microbiology project,” he said.
“Don’t give him too much information,” they laughed.
“I won’t,” I said .”I’ll be selective.”
We went and sat down about 20 yards away on the same ledge next to a huge planting of purple,white and yellow crocuses underneath a tree not yet leafed out. The blossoms were deep and rich in the late afternoon sun. Beyond us a National Guard Unit marched in formation, something I never saw in this location during the time I taught on campus. Everyone, not just the recruits, seemed to have buzz cuts. Times had changed.
We’ll call our young microbiologist Darren. He found a clean sheet of binder paper in his notebook and began his preamble. Something like 71 thousand people with cystic fibrosis. I thought that was a small number. I told him I had MS, and the number was nearly 3 times that, yet considered small. His face softened and looked concerned. He said he was sorry to hear I had MS. He wanted to be a doctor. I said, “oh, you know what, it’s okay. I’ve really turned my health around by changing my diet. “
“Really?” he said. His eyes lit up.
He started asking me questions about that and writing things like “Dr. Swank,” “Forks Over Knives” and “T. Colin Campbell” in the margins next to the answers I gave him to his 3 prescribed questions. Although I’m better at remembering the feel of conversations and questions than all the exact quotes, one of his questions went something like this: if I had cycstic fibrosis, would I want to choose the treatment his group had devised if it were available? The treatment involved the introduction of a genetically modified bacteria into the lung that would “disable” the AL something-or-other in the bacteria causing the damage in cystic fibrosis. What were the side effects? I questioned. He didn’t think there would be any.
“Well,” I said, ““I’m skeptical of genetically modified anything.”” He thought that was great. He wanted to quote me on that. He wrote it down. We both laughed.
I found out that his aunt had had breast cancer and turned her health around with diet and lifestyle changes. But that his uncle with a different kind of cancer had had to have surgery to have bones in his jaw replaced. We agreed both types of treatment were necessary, but that perhaps we’d all be better off if lifestyle choices were the foundation instead of being considered something marginal very few people ever knew to try.
I also found out the little black flute around his neck is some kind of controlled nicotine inhaler aiding him in his efforts to quit smoking. He said he wanted to be the kind of doctor that cares about patients. I told him about Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s books, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings, and her beautiful work with cancer patients and physicians hoping to put some heart back into their medical practice, and he scribbled those titles down in the right hand margin of his page, which now had more in it than the answers to his original questions.
He said, “You look great. I would not have ever guessed you have all these serious challenges.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And now, if you’re all done asking me questions, I better get going. It’s time for me to go home and do my yoga. “
We both laughed again.
Even though I had been perfectly willing to answer his questions and help him with his assignment (he was relieved I was not a science person—he must have hit the jackpot with my various singularities for his sample), it was pretty hard to tell by the end of our conversation that he had been the one who started out attempting to give directions rather than receive them. I guess it’s just in my constitution to end up pointing the way. I haven’t taught a formal class in 17 years. Yet I am fortunate to live on the edge of the university where my opportunities to “teach” continue on in these less formal annd serendipitous ways. They feel every bit as meaningful to me as the years I taught in the classroom. And now that I can make it up the hill to the library, I hope to enjoy even more of them.