I saw her when I walked into the waiting room. Her white hair formed a soft halo of tight curls around her smiling face. She sat comfortably, her legs outstretched, feet donned with thick-soled orthopedic shoes.
I was the designated driver for a friend who was getting her wisdom teeth removed. I’d run an errand, and now it was time to address the work I’d brought along. I sat down along the wall in a nondescript waiting room chair and pulled a folder from my bag.
A middle-aged woman turned from the nurses’ window and took the seat beside her. They sat in silence for a minute. Then, the first woman’s body tilted onto one hip, bringing her head closer to her younger companion’s. “Do you know what we’re doing? ‘Cause I don’t.”
The middle-aged woman smiled kindly. Speaking a few decibels louder than normal, she slowly explained they were there so she could get her teeth cleaned, a basic routine dental check up. The older woman listened carefully, seriously, still leaning toward her companion.
Finally she sat back upright, shaking her head. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
The woman—was she her daughter? A caretaker?—repeated her explanation, a bit louder, a bit slower. But the white curls shook from side to side again.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“It’s not important. It’s alright.”
“It’s alright?” Hesitation. Concern.
The younger woman nodded and smiled. A few beats of silence.
My attention returned to the papers in front of me. Red ink bled onto the paper as my pen followed my eyes.
Again the older woman spoke. “Do you know what we’re doing? ‘Cause I don’t.” Exact same wording. Exact same intonation as before. The younger woman patted her beige skirt reassuringly, explaining a third time the purpose of their visit. Perhaps finally satisfied, the older woman stared toward the wall. She wore a tweed jacket with interlocking crimson, mustard, and forest green lines. Something deep in my memory suggested my grandmother had a jacket like this once.
She stirred. “Tell me if I should do something.”
A beat. Then, as if a fresh revelation, a confession, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The phrases cycled through. Repeated at least half a dozen times, each separated by a minute of silence—a minute until her mind lost its bearings.
Again she said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
By now, the woman, who I assumed was her caretaker, had stopped giving her explanations. Now, she simply said, “I’ll tell you.”
A nurse appeared at the door and escorted them to the back. The caretaker returned, alone, after a few minutes and sank into a chair. I wondered if the woman would keep asking her questions, amidst the metal tools scraping away plaque, as a stranger brushed her teeth.
I was staring at the printed page in my hand, but my eyes were blurred over, unseeing. Their words played in my mind.
“Do you know what we’re doing? ‘Cause I don’t. - I don’t know what you’re saying. - I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. - Tell me if I should do something.”
And the simple reply, “I’ll tell you.”
The words reverberated in my heart because they sounded so familiar. [And I considered not telling you this detail. It sounds…forced? Over-spiritualized? Cliche? But it shot through my mind that day.] I heard them in my own voice, in prayer. Lord, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t know what You’re saying. Just tell me if I need to do something different.
It was the sound of my own forgetfulness. It was the sound of my own helplessness and uncertainty. Does He hear my endless repetition of questions and misgivings with the same steady kindness and understanding? Was this the same patient grace that meets me? It’s alright. I’ll tell you.