Sometimes on ER, when the powers that be have a point they want to make—say, for example, that Kerry Weaver is a hidebound bureaucrat enslaved by the very rules she loves—they can be pretty heavy-handed about how they develop the plot and marshal the show’s characters behind this point. Case in point: Kerry, while trying to photocopy a performance review of Doug Ross, which she wrote to stall his attempt to become the ER Pediatric Attending, is interrupted by a maintenance guy who has come with his crew to paint the room, and when she complains that this is the last room that needs maintenance, he tells her, “Look, lady, I don’t make the rules, I just do what they tell me to.” In case we, or Kerry, have missed the point, it turns out that the painting is just a first step in renovating the room into a space suitable for the new ER Peeds unit, to be headed by Doug Ross, the board’s choice for Pediatric Attending.
It’s not subtle, but it’s satisfying, and even if in these cases you feel like you can sometimes see the writers working behind the scenes to hammer their point home, well, you take it in stride as an expedient convention of the serial drama. That’s life.
Indeed, sometimes the Big Show can be pretty heavy-handed about how it serves up its various themes for our consideration. Yesterday I’d gone into work early for a conference call, which was about as exciting as it sounds. The conference room has a big glass wall that looks out on a group of desks, mostly empty at this early hour, except for this one freelancer who had come in early on her last day, to wrap things up, I guess. Her son of, maybe, three was with her, pretty well behaved, roving around just a little bit as she sat at her desk trying to get stuff done. At some point he came over to the conference room to watch us, his little moon face pressed up against the glass, his big blue eyes blinking at us, as though we were the most fascinating thing ever. He raised a hand and waved at me, tentatively, as though unsure whether I would understand this gesture. I raised my hand and waved back and he seemed thoughtfully encouraged by this sign of intelligence and followed it up with several more tests designed, I guess, to plumb my capabilities. It was easily the most interesting part of the call, so I was disappointed when his mom noticed and called him away, giving me a mute shrug of apology to which I responded with the sign for, “Good god, no problem; in fact, bring it on, as far as I’m concerned,” which, in retrospect, was probably more than I could clearly convey.
A few minutes later, when the call wrapped up, I went over to meet this boy, who looked up from his play and shot lightning bolts at me, which I attempted to catch in my hands but they were too powerful for me so I dropped them with a little yelp.
“Sorry,” he said. “Lightning bolts.” And he gave this little shrug as if to say, what the hell were you thinking, trying to catch my lightning bolts. Then he went back to his play.
“He’s pretty charming,” I said to his mom. “What’s his name?”
“Lincoln,” she said, and at the sound of his name he turned around and put out his hand. I reached to shake it but he had other ideas and gave me a little fist bump of greeting.
“Lincoln,” I said, blinking. “I’ve never met a boy named Lincoln.”
And I immediately regretted saying it, because it’s true, I guess. I have a son named Lincoln but he was stillborn, a little more than a year ago, and I’m still figuring out how to talk about him—I have a son, I had a son—it’s hard to know what to say or when to say it.
A few hours after this lucky encounter with Lincoln—it felt lucky, it shook me up—I was walking to lunch with a client who was in town for the day. I suppose that good people must crop up amongst clients in the same proportion as they do in the population at large, but this guy is one of those people you just feel privileged to have met, just a good soul. So we were walking along, he and I, in a loose knot of colleagues, and he asked me, “Do you know what you’re having?”
He was picking up the thread of a conversation we’d begun a couple hours earlier, when I’d jumped on the elevator to go meet him and found him already there.
“Hello!” he’d said. “What’s new?”
And, because I’d just come from my encounter with young Lincoln and was still fairly unmoored, I kind of blurted out, “My wife and I are having a baby!” And my client broke into a broad grin and raised his hand and we did that kind of hybrid overhead high- five handshake grasp. Then the doors opened, other people got on, break for commercial, move on.
The spontaneous, joyous way he reacted made me imagine I’d told him some of our history. When our Lincoln died it knocked me out of work for a while, and for a while after that I felt like everybody could see through me and I really can’t remember what I’d said to whom, so when he asked me, you know, after the commercial break, if I knew what I was having, I just forged ahead.
“Another boy,” I said.
“Wow,” he replied.
“Yeah. Four in a row,” I said.
At this, his brow furrowed as he did the math. Two boys from a previous marriage. One on the way. So…
“Did I?—have you?—I can’t remember if I—” I began incoherently before finally setting a course and taking it. “Last summer we lost a baby.”
My client’s hand shot to my shoulder, landed there lightly and then withdrew. It was such a compassionate, tentative, respectful gesture-it felt to me like what I might have done in his place.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “It was ten days before his due date, he just got his cord caught under his arm and—that was that.”
We walked along and talked a little about birth and grief. He told me what he thought. He listened to what I thought. That’s all you need from a client or a friend.
Then we got to the restaurant, a newish place in town, with long community tables set close together in an open room. And this is where I feel the script writers get a little heavy-handed.
I heard something drop to the floor at the table behind ours—it sounded like someone had sent a cellphone skittering off. But when I reached under my chair to get it, it was a toy car. And when I turned to give it back, I came face to face with this adorable child with deep brown eyes and a glorious shock of thick brown hair. Next to him was a woman I know from my kids’ school.
She introduced me to the kid—let’s call him Apollo—and the kid’s mom, Leto; she explained how we knew each other and she asked after the missus and how was the pregnancy going and so forth. The she said:
“You know, Leto had a stillborn baby a few years ago.”
Leto and I looked at each other wide-eyed.
“Did you…lose a baby, too,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Last summer.”
“How are you doing?” she said, this near total stranger, and her hand reached out for mine. I took her hand and let go, then regretted letting go so soon and reached out and took it again and we both laughed. It was a little laugh of recognition, I suppose, as if we discovered that we did know each other a little, after all, as if we both got the joke. Due to my condition (see “An Episode You Won’t Want to Miss” 9/26/07), I had begun excreting an profusion of lacrimal fluid which had exceeded the margins of the palpebrae and begun coursing down my cheeks, which I cleared with a few wipes from my napkin.
My friend apologized for bringing up a sad topic, but I said it was nice to have a chance to talk about it. Then Leto said:
“People worry about making you sad, but they can’t really make you sad. You’re already there.”
I loved that. We talked a little more—about Apollo, about time spent waiting, time spent hiding out indoors—but that was the best, the idea that you could recast a vulnerability as a kind of super-power. It made me feel less like a middle-aged man prone to tears and more like, “I am Lachrymo from the planet Pleuron! You cannot make me sad.”
Anyway, I spent the rest of the day waiting for the theme to crop up again but, apart from discovering that another client went to Lincoln High as a boy, there was nothing. If life were really like ER, there’d be at least one more moment, like me coming home to the missus, who waves to me from the porch, seven months pregnant, and asks, “How was your day?”
Cue the music. Run the credits.