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My Friend Charlie

Charlie and his family were standing alongside a parade route on Napoleon Avenue during Mardi Gras. We saw them before they saw us. Just as we approached, he broke into a dance. It surprised me. A hip-hop song was blasting from a passing float, and Charlie had his palms up and out. His knees were bent. He was lowering himself down to the ground while popping his shoulders. It was like seeing someone moonwalk really well. If he had done this dance for twenty seconds it would have been merely cool. But the essence of magic is speed. He did the dance for only about five seconds — for this reason, it was magic.my friend charlie

Things like this happen now and then with Charlie — you get these glimpses. And it’s usually not of him dancing. In fact, it’s usually the opposite — a feeling of stillness amidst motion. I am using his real name for some reason. He will probably think it’s weird of me to be going on about it, but I just remembered a conversation we had at a party a few years ago and I want to share the feeling it still brings me.

It was a party of grown-ups — a lot of parents, everyone dressed up. Charlie stood out because he was wearing a tuxedo. He and his wife had been to a fancy fundraiser earlier that evening. It was the loud part of the night when things are starting to get sloppy. The party was at the house of the couple who throw famous parties — a big house, the elegant rooms packed with drunk adults cutting loose. There is a saying among the locals, that New Orleans is ten years behind the rest of the country, that I always felt is an almost demure form of understatement, because these were Cheever parties; the next day someone would have a crisis and attempt to swim home pool by pool.

Amidst it all were Charlie and I there in the hallway, shouting pleasantries. I recall this slender, dapper figure in a tuxedo standing there, and for some reason I started asking him about his work. Pressing him about the mechanics. I’ll skip the technical term for what he does, but my understanding is this: when a baby has open heart surgery, there is an anesthesiologist who specializes in keeping them unconscious but stable. That’s Charlie.

For some reason, in the midst of this fun party, I started asking him questions about what this is like. Specifically about the parents. And he started talking. He doesn’t actually talk that much, but now he was talking and he was into it. He was reenacting the conversations he would have with the parents of these babies who are having open heart surgery. How he tells them he is going to take care of these babies as though they were his own.

The whole place went into a blur except for Charlie. There was this look on his face, a tone of voice that conveyed the idea, “I am not screwing around.”

I know him because our kids went to the same school. At least I think that’s why. Our respective firecrackers made friends and the parents trailed along. And now I was staring into Charlie’s face, all intense as he painted this image of parents whose baby needed open heart surgery. He talked to me like he talked to them. It was like I was now one of those parents. And suddenly Charlie is standing before me in scrubs instead of a tux, (but with the same expression on his face) standing with me in the waiting room, or some room in a hospital, saying, I am going to treat your baby as though it were my own. Lifting his El Greco hands as he says this. Total stillness in his hands. Steady.

The intensity  welled up from him as he told me this at the party— I was there for the ride. His job is to introduce drugs into a metabolism. I was mainlining this feeling of complete focus, of complete dedication. The feeling of being on a precipice and holding a string that is attached not to a balloon, but to a baby.

The memory of that conversation comes back to me now and then. The strange way we gravitate to things we need–my need to think of this exchange, and also whatever it was in Charlie that made him  end up with this specialty. There must be something about this interaction that he was drawn to. His skill, besides all the technical things he has to do in order for his corner of things in the surgery to be locked down and solid, in order for the to baby get every chance, is to convey to the parents of that baby that he is taking this very seriously!

At this point I have to ask myself why I am even bothering to share this anecdote, why I am gravitating toward it now.

Part of the answer is that Charlie and his wife had a party the other night, and my wife has handed me an envelope with a thank you note to deliver to their door because they live near my office. But I worked very late the other night. It was two in the morning when I went by their house. I imagined myself opening the front gate and sneaking up to the porch in the dark. All the security lights would blast on. I would feel like a criminal. They might even wake up and have to anxiously peer out the window.

“I’m sorry!” I would have to yell, waving the cream-colored envelope in the air like some surrender flag. “It’s just me! I have a thank you note!”

Then I imagined a vigilante crashing out of the bushes. They live across the street from a complete nutcase who has so many video cameras, motion sensors (I initially wrote ‘notion sensors,’ and those are surely coming), and so forth aimed at the perimeter of his property, I would not be surprised if he sits in the bushes like a duck hunter waiting for an occasion to shoot someone. At the least I would probably set off his security lights. I imagined the headline: “Man Bearing Thank You Note Mistakenly Shot on Friend’s Porch!”

But that is the jokey, circumstantial aspect for why this conversation came to mind. I think the real answer is that I like coming back to the feeling I had at the party talking to Charlie. I like thinking of these parents in a state of extreme duress. Can you imagine if your infant was having heart surgery?  I can barely stand to think of what they went through being born. And now they have to have an operation on their heart?

Listening to him tell me about it, I felt the fragility and value of life so powerfully, but it wasn’t a fearful feeling. It was a hopeful, even confident feeling because it was being conveyed to me by a voice that was stoic. A voice that conveyed that life ought to be taken seriously.

But we don’t live on the same frequency all the time. One day he is on the front lines of life and death and the next it’s Mardi Gras and Charlie is shoulder popping and head bobbing to the sound of a hip-hop song blasting from a float. And I have other modes that are not so still and real and don’t make life so precious. So why now? Perhaps this is my version of a thank you note.

Or maybe it’s because there were late afternoon thunder showers, but now the sun is breaking through the clouds at dusk. Because the next six weeks are the ones where the roulette wheel of hurricane season spins around and around. Because I have a deadline and I am going to make it, but suddenly I am writing this piece instead. Because the ground is wet and strewn with puddles reflecting the sky. Everything is shimmering. I seem to enjoy visiting a scary place where you are on the brink of catastrophe and then retreating from the brink. I like to be afraid and then to assure myself that everything will come out all right in the end.

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