I was worried yesterday morning that I would be so busy in the clinic that I wouldn’t be able to catch any of the inauguration. As it turned out, many of my patients failed to show (hmmm…perhaps it was too cold, or maybe they had something on TV they wanted to watch?), so I did see a good bit of it, including the swearing-in ceremony, on the television in the break room. And even in those moments when I was tied to my desk, there was good, ol’ reliable NPR.
During one lull in the action, I poured myself yet another cup o’ Joe and sat down to watch as the Presidential motorcade made its way to The Capital Building while a million onlookers, quivering from the cold and bold expectations, formed a happy guantlet whose only weapons were shouts of jubilation flung with reckless abandon.
As I watched, J., a co-worker of some 16 years, walked in. He looked at the TV, and then at me, and scowled.
His first words dripped with venom: “I’m not watching that. I don’t see any reason to celebrate that!
I’d heard similar sentiments in other places, but not with that much force and emotion.
“I don’t know,” I replied, realizing full well that I was now treading in a mine field. “I think even if you didn’t vote for him, you could still appreciate the way we do things on a day like today: the pageantry, the tradition, the peaceful transition of power and all.”
“No,” he said, “I didn’t vote for him. I don’t believe in what he stands for: abortion and homosexuals and all that. I think this is all a big mistake and people are going to realize it soon enough.”
I couldn’t resist. “So for you, it had to be a Republican, right?”
“No, I’m an independent!” (Highly unlikely, but I didn’t press.)
This man has a bachelor’s degree in history, is a Christian of the charismatic kind and knows his Bible backwards and forwards. So I asked, “But you are going to pray for him, right?”
“Hmmph! Well, he’s certainly going to need some prayers!”
“But are you going to pray for him?” I pressed.
“I don’t have to pray for a Muslim!” he replied, his voice now rising.
As a doctor, I’ve learned that when talking to a patient, I usually go through a few moments of polite chatter and red herrings before I finally arrive at the real reason for the visit. More often than not, it’s the third item on the list.
The two of us had arrived at that point. I like to call it “Ground Zero.”
Tip-toeing carefully now, and with a quiet, steady voice, I said, “J., I don’t think he’s a Muslim. But even if he was, shouldn’t we still pray for him?”
J. stared at me, his cheeks turning a bright red, his fingers flexing, forming a fist. I looked into his eyes, brimming with tears now, and I saw the kind of fear normally reserved for that sudden, unexpected moment when one looks up and sees The Reaper a’comin’ to collect his due.
He turned and started down the hall, but not before calling out over his shoulder, half-shouting, “He is a Muslim, and you and everyone else are going to find that out soon enough!”
I was shaken; it’s unnerving watching a friend who is normally calm and gentle come unhinged like that. I realized anew that for many, the campaign was far from over, but in fact, was just beginning.
I’ve stood in silence at the real Ground Zero, the one where Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, believers and non-believers of every tribe, stripe and color perished together in an inferno of hate and fear.
And now I stood at another. I topped off my coffee, shook my head a few times and blinked, trying my best to move on as I watched the motorcade reach The Capital where a million onlookers, caught up in the joy of the moment, cheered in hopeful expectation.