Leaving Salem

One Wednesday afternoon my twin sister and I were ripping up terra firma in my grandmother’s fallow garden. We were only five-years-old, just months before beginning kindergarten. My sister, in her clod-crushing zeal, miscalculated the distance between herself and me. I was summarily thumped on the head with a garden hoe. Two distinct memories fill my mind about that moment: First, the warm, oozing of blood running into my left ear; and second, the sight of my Medicare-receiving, apron-wearing grandmother running, yes, running, from the house to scoop me into her arms.

There were no ambulances in my hometown. There was no real emergency room. There was no 911 service. Even if these things had been readily available, it wouldn’t have mattered on this afternoon. My grandmother didn’t own a phone or drive a car. My aunt, who lived next door, called my mother at work. She and my father arrived in record time and sped me to the office of Dr. Barron, one of only three doctors in town.  Dr. Barron was a community acknowledged quack.

“I wouldn’t let him work on my dog,” was a phrase I had heard my entire life. But on this afternoon he was the only option. See, Dr. Johnson did not work on Wednesdays, and nobody really visited Doc Hill anymore, not unless it was an extreme emergency. Doc Hill was very old, and besides that, young mothers had lost all confidence in him. A few years earlier he reported to his clinic early one morning to deliver a new born baby boy, drunk as the proverbial skunk. The delivery was without complication, but the subsequent circumcision was a disaster.

So, it was with great trepidation that I was passed with a gushing head wound into the hands and care of Dr. Barron, this silver-haired idiot. I was dragged to an examination room where Dr. Barron separated me from my parents, asking them to remain in his clinic lobby. He, his two nurses and an office receptionist held me down to place a half-dozen stitches in my scalp. I twisted and turned, convulsed and screamed, begging someone, anyone, to explain what was happening. They continued their work, never saying a word. Finally, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Will someone please talk to me!”

Apparently that was the magic phrase. Dr. Barron and his team of tormentors actually stopped what they were doing. He looked me in the eyes, explained what they were trying to do, how long it would take, how much it would hurt, and the hoped for result when he finished. I then lay perfectly still, the doctor only moving my head occasionally, until the procedure was complete. I only needed a little conversation and explanation. I just needed someone to listen to me.

Listening is largely a lost art. Medical professionals run us through their offices like cattle through a chute. Politicians stubbornly ignore our voices. Our children discount our counsel. Our spouses cannot recall the conversation we had just this morning. Heck, even the kid at the fast-food restaurant can’t listen long enough to get our order right! As I get older I understand more and more why Jesus often said, “He who has ears let him hear,” before uttering some mind-blowing instruction. Because for the most part, we do not use those two fleshy instruments attached to the side of head.

At no time in human history has there been more opportunity to communicate. Land lines, cell phones, e-mail, faxes: We’ve come a long way from beating drums and smoke signals. Still, most of our advances have been on the speaking side, rather than the listening side. I wonder what would happen in our homes, in our office cubicles, in the classroom, in the doctor’s office, in our church sanctuaries, in the houses of legislation if we who have ears took the time to actually use them.

We just might begin to appreciate, rather than vilify, those on the other side of the aisle. We just might find that the world would grow a little quieter, a bit more peaceful. We just might find that those we have long ignored actually have something worth saying. We just might discover the greatest advancement in the history of human communication – the ability to not say a single word.

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