I wasn’t on duty that night.
It was summer, 1967. Our hospital’s leading surgeon strode into the office, flipped off the paging switch, ripped the unit from the wall, then stalked away.
A broken circuit. A bent plug. A whiff of char.
My friend, running switchboard, stared at the metal-tipped cord meant to connect Dr. E. with his caller. Um, no, the doctor was not available. Could she take a message?
I know the feeling.
Socially, I’m feeling awkward these days. Not fully available. Seems I’ve misplaced my knack for navigating multiple, incoming signals.
My weekly Zoom conversation with five laughing women (often talking over each other’s words) can overload my senses — especially when my internet connection proves unstable and the audio cuts out.
I can’t keep all the lines sorted.
Fifty-some years ago, when I trained on the hospital switchboard, if I moved responded too slowly, calls would bottleneck. The insistent beeps and flashing lights overwhelmed me.
Verbal triage demands concentration. While directing telephone traffic, I’d ask, “Is this an emergency?”
Then I’d pause for a deep breath. Now, who did I put on hold? And what on earth did they want?
This past week I planned a small, pandemically sensitive, airport sendoff for cherished friends moving to Maui. We sang lyrics customized for the occasion — through masks — and yours truly busted a few Hula moves.
Laughter. Cheers. Cellphone captures. Words of remembrance and love. A-lo-HA!
Our friends beamed. After a year, it was heady being together again, even briefly.
And yet. I felt an odd sense of suspension, like a caller not yet plugged into the desired source. Inner switchboard, jammed. It caught me off guard.
From our earliest hours onward, touch fosters thriving. Sure, elbow bumps offer contact, the shared chuckle. Eyes may communicate soul but don’t always reveal nuance. Something vibrant seems lost. Or tabled.
Unused, my social skills have languished; my small talk sounds rusty. Too many days touched by sorrow and sameness can weary the spirit, fray generosity, erode compassion.
Isolation can also tutor us in the ever-deepening riches of creative solitude.
Dreamer assures me I’ll readapt, with practice. Will I reenter public gatherings fully? Gratefully?
Poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell writes:
. . . You feel less lonely
when you’re part of a posse and still
your named and singular self.
St. Benedict writes: Always, we begin again.
Meanwhile, I’ll savor my ongoing pen pal endeavors, offer what ease I can to others. My lapse in social fluency may or may not dissipate. I’m okay with that. Going forward, from somewhere deep within command central God may switch my assignment, redirect my connections, as needed.
My job? Stay available.
How about you? What short-circuits your availability?
Excerpt, “The River,” Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor