My husband and I turned into a hidden driveway that wound us into a wooded area ending at a small house. The trees showed signs of the approaching Michigan winter, with only the pines keeping their green hue to color the otherwise brown scenery. As we got out of our truck, we could hear the dog barking inside and the sound of wind chimes on the porch of the old wooden house. The door opened and out came, to my surprise, an elf – his short stature made shorter by his mangled back. His weathered face was covered with a full beard and his eyes twinkled as he greeted us. Though we just met, I immediately knew his heart and hands loved crafting.
He was excited and nervous to bring us into his workshop, for inside was his labor of love– created just for us. It was important to him that we lay eyes on it exactly where he built it; we had not seen any photos.
Walking through the door of the small pole barn beside his house, the smell of fresh wood mingled with the crisp, cold air of early winter. Sawdust covered the floor, wood pieces leaned against the walls and were scattered here and there, and well-used woodworking tools were everywhere. In the center stood the masterpiece: our new dining room table, its shiny birdseye maple top was like a beacon calling to me. As I approached, I saw small delicate wood diamonds in browns and reds lying together in the center of the table and, off in each corner, even smaller offshoots of the centerpiece. Underneath, the table was held up by a strong solid trestle of undulating maple wood. As I looked under the table, another surprise caught my eye – a hidden drawer camouflaged by the red stain on the underside of the table.
It took my breath away.
Everyone else was outside preparing the truck for its precious cargo, but I stayed in the workshop with the elf. Using his cane to support his crippled body, the wood elf approached the table. He gently caressed the smooth wood, gazing down with a look of pride and sadness. He hadn’t made a big piece of furniture in a while because his body, ravaged by pain, was slowly failing him. Somehow, he found the strength and will to create one more time.
When my husband and my cousin carried the table out, he whispered in my ear, “this is probably the last table I will ever make.” I felt honored. And sad. I could understand putting your heart and soul into your work and then letting it go.
Every day in my practice as an ob/gyn, I have to let go.
I remember when she called me, breathless with excitement. “I think I’m pregnant, Andrea! I mean, my pregnancy test was positive, so I’m pregnant, right?” We had been recent friends, our paths crossing via other friends and then we realized we lived in the same neighborhood. We were both young, she recently married, me, recently finished residency.
“Will you be my doctor?” she asked next.
I was excited and flattered she asked me and answered “yes!” immediately.
And so began another facet to our friendship.
I met her husband at her first ob visit to my office when I also met her baby as a speck on the screen of the ultrasound. Almost in unison, “that’s our baby” they said in wonder.
First monthly, then gradually more frequently, I saw my friend and her husband in the office for her appointments. Her petite body became rounder, her thin cheeks rosier, and our friendship fuller as the weeks went by. I learned about how her and her husband met, how scared she was to gain weight during the pregnancy since keeping fit was important to her, how excited but unsure she felt becoming a mother since she was adopted, how nervous she was to pick out a daycare and leave her baby when she returned to work. We were forming and molding and exploring a bond of intimacy and trust, weaving our hearts into this new tapestry.
Then one day she called, “I think my water broke.” But she was six weeks early.
By the time she reached my office, she was starting to have contractions. It was obvious her water was broken – the pad she was sitting on was soaked.
We both headed to the hospital; her husband met us there . It was an early fall afternoon, the sunlight shining into the labor room, the fall leaves still hanging on to the trees. Her contractions intensified soon after arriving at the hospital. I checked her, but she hadn’t progressed in her labor.
“I can’t deal with this pain. I never finished childbirth classes and don’t know what to do.” Her eyes wildly darted from me to her husband and to her nurse, hoping one of us had answers.
All of us took turns helping her through the contractions, but her labor was fierce. Sweaty and gripped with pain, she decided to get an epidural and, within minutes of receiving it, her demeanor became calm.
As the afternoon stretched to evening then deeper into the night, her husband and I became more and more hungry. Finally, he looked at me and said “what are my options for food? I’m starving!” I looked at my watch, it was getting late and the cafeteria was closed. “You could get a pizza delivered here.” He looked at his wife. “Go for it,” she said.
When the pizza arrived, I suggested he could take it to the family waiting room, but my friend invited us to eat in her room. So the two of us grabbed a slice, sat around the bed, and chatted about the surprising day.
Several hours later, she was finally ready to push, and within an hour her son was born. His small body let out a big cry to let us all know he was okay. Soon after he was born, family that had been waiting outside, came in and surrounded my friend and her husband. I stood back a moment and looked around at everybody. It was obvious I was no longer needed as the family formed a circle around the baby. With a last glance back, I walked out of the room feeling a little lost as if a part of me was gone. The intimacy created that day, and the months leading up to it, would never be the same.
Just like with the wood elf, I put my heart and soul into my work. Each interaction, each delivery, each surgery, each day, I pause and gaze at my work. Just as he held his breath when we first looked upon our table, I sometimes hold my breath wondering if I have “done right” by my patient. And then, after my work is complete and they are gone, I continue thinking of them, wondering how they are, letting go of the piece of my heart I gave to them.
As I gaze at my table, I cherish the piece of heart the wood elf embedded in his work for me, especially knowing it was his last.