“One question,” he plops down a big stack of paperwork on her desk. “My parents won’t see these forms, will they?” I cannot hear the receptionist’s reply, but the stout teenager thanks her, tugs on his toboggan* and leaves empty-handed. As he walks out, he holds the heavy door for the next client/patient—I never know what to call them.
She is a woman in her 80s, from what I can tell, with a full-length fur on. It is 26 degrees outside, so if you’re a fur-coat-person, this is your time to shine. I hear the three beeps indicating her co-pay is complete, and she slips her credit card back in her wallet. She and her coat take a seat and wait.
The recessed light above me turns on. I didn’t notice it there before, but now the place seems brighter.
The waiting room is awash with sky and sage: calming, peaceful. Sunlight streams through south-facing windows just enough to cheer, but not so much as to overwhelm. There’s a mantle on the wall, but I’m pretty sure it’s just for looks.
A familiar face walks in the door, again. This is never really a place where you want to see a familiar face, and certainly not twice in a month. I am overwhelmed by the desire to explain my brokenness—just enough to be vulnerable in the Hollywood way, but not really broken. Not weird or messed up. I’m not like the guy who signed in just ahead of me with a tattoo on his bald head. I’m still good, for the most part, right? The familiar face is a woman I worked with years ago, and now she’s a counselor here. She probably listens to the same, awkward, ‘Let me prove I’m really ok’ monologue every time she walks through this room. And each time I see her, I think to myself, “Be cool. Be cool.” But I am never cool. I always have something to prove, and I always run through the same ridiculous rigamarole so she will know we can still hang out on the weekends, if the chance arises.
This must be the most popular time of day to make an appointment with your therapist, because this place is hopping. The recessed light flickers annoyingly; apparently it has a short. A 30-something guy with a groomed beard and an Auburn hoodie takes the seat next to the fake fireplace. I imagine him a decade ago with a large, orange “A” on his chest, yelling with his fellow Sigma Chi’s on the front row of an SEC tournament game. He waits, hands on his knees.
On her phone, just across the coffee table from Auburn, is a mom about my age. She is oblivious to us all, and I know exactly what she’s doing. She’s arranging rides, organizing the calendar, and putting things in order as she politely responds to the millions of texts about the zillions of details that come her way, rapid-fire, all day long. She’s cleaning up what she can while she waits for her teen to finish his appointment. Not too many years ago, that boy was cooing and giggling and learning to walk. “How—someone, please tell me!—how did we end up here so quickly?” she is thinking, with a crack in the voice in her head. And she continues to put things in order on her phone, which almost always does what she asks.
A man walks in with his wedding ring on. Ten minutes later, his wife joins him. Myriad issues could bring a married couple into a therapist’s office. It’s one thing to be broken by yourself, but to sleep, eat, talk, share money, share your very body, and—heaven help us!—share rides in the passenger’s seat with a second broken person is asking too much, without help from Somewhere. They sit in the wingbacks, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and what they will each eat for lunch.
More flickering from the ceiling.
“They called me Mrs. So-and-So,” I hear a woman say to her elementary-school-aged daughter. She’s got a look of disdain on her face mixed with a forced smile. “They think, because your last name is So-and-So, so is mine.” Clearly, nothing could be more offensive, and she wants us all to know it. The girl’s dad walks in and sits across the way. Mrs. Not-So-and-So and Girl’s Dad mention the cold outside and that’s it. Silence.
Each time footsteps come down the hall, we all look up, listening for the counselor who is wearing the invisible halo to call our names. We all know where we are cracked, for the most part. We need and want total healing, or at least some objective wisdom. Many of the counselors here don’t take insurance, so the help we are searching for is all out-of-pocket.
The silver circle in the ceiling goes dark for a minute, comes on, then flickers again. This ridiculous light mocks us with the easy fix it requires—nothing more than a ladder, a new bulb, and three or four turns of the wrist.
My daughter is playing quietly next to me, and she asks me to hold her small toy. I cup my palms around it. “Don’t squish it,” she says. “I’m not squishing it,” I reply.
“I’m protecting it.”
AirPods and phones and books build walls. Masks help. Nobody makes eye contact. We all remain in our broken bubbles, pretending we don’t see each other or know each other; pretending we’re all alright. But our out-of-pocket receipts betray us. The way our breath catches in unison when a therapist appears in the doorway sells us out. The way this furniture should feel comfortable—relaxing even—but it never feels anything but awkward, that tells our stories for us.
Being broken won’t ever feel natural. We weren’t originally intended to live like this—all messed up in a messed-up world. But there is good news for the Auburn fan, the toboggan kid, Mrs. Not-So-and-So, and for me.
This world won’t always be broken.
And that’s the real news we are all waiting to hear. Eventually, for some of us, all the sad things will come un-true. While I find myself looking to Leila-with-the-cool-hair for wisdom on how to live life, I can sincerely report that my soul is already at peace. Here’s why: because I am so very far from perfect, and because God is totally perfect, only blood—mine or someone else’s—can bridge the gap between us. Nobody who is perfect wants to be around all my stank. Jesus died and rose from the dead (sounds weird, but think Easter) to pay the debt I owe. I’ve put my trust in him to pay my debt.
We are all putting our trust in something, aren’t we? Maybe our money or our significant other. Maybe our gender or our sexuality. Maybe our reach or our profession or our position in the family (I’m a first-born; we first-borns like to bring that into the conversation whenever we can). Maybe our athleticism or our winsome way with people.
I have lots of those things, but it’s easy for me to see at any funeral that none of that fits into the casket. When I look at this grand Earth and the sky beyond it, as well as into the depths of my own human heart, there’s just too much that supports the idea that the moment after I take my last breath here, I will take my first somewhere else. We all must choose whether we believe that’s true, and what we will do about it personally. I can testify—even as I sit at the counselor’s office looking for help on my particular situation and my own jagged contribution to it—I have been given life and peace now, and something stunningly fabulous to look forward to later.
Because Jesus has redeemed my life from the pit (parts of it created by me, and parts of it are the way of the world), I will live forever with him in Heaven—a place where there is no abuse, no pandemic; where politics aren’t even a thing; and where the sounds of children playing happily in the streets will ring through the air. It’s where there is no cancer and no divorce, no debt and no death, no disease and no broken relationships. It’s a place where there are no police or fire stations, no hospitals or pharmacies, no old folks’ homes or prisons. No tears at all, actually.
Thanks be to God, it is a place where there is not one single waiting room as far as the eye can see.
*In the American South, where snow is rare, the connection between “toboggan” and “sled” faded, and the primary definition of “toboggan” thus became the hat. In fact, some Americans might be shocked to learn that toboggans are also sleds.
Candace Echols is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine.