RELIEF - Can I see another's woe, and not be in sorrow, too? Can I see another's grief, and not seek for kind relief? ~ William Blake
A string of spittle landed on the left toe of Dr. Marvin's brown Oxfords as he dumped a saliva-soaked cotton wad into the trash container. He pulled a tissue from his lab coat, bent down to wipe his shoe, and groaned in pain. On his return to Randy in the dentist chair, Dr. Marvin looked out the window and barked, “Do you see that? Someone’s in my spot – again.”
Moaning from back pain and complaining about his filled parking spot had become daily rituals. Dr. Marvin's back ached all the time. “One of these days I’ll get it fixed,” he’d announce, on and off, to no one in particular. But he smoldered if someone parked in his private spot, which was pretty much every day.
I needed my job so I usually remained silent when Dr. Marvin fumed about the overarching transgressions of humanity - but my mouth shifted into gear before my brain turned on.
“You don’t drive to work,” I said.
“They don’t know that,” he sniffed and held out his hand. “Pliers.” I slapped the instrument into his palm.
From the point of view of the patients, there was no indication I was a teacher by trade and worked as an orthodontist’s assistant because I couldn’t find a teaching job when my family moved from Montreal to Syracuse, New York, in September of 1976. My husband Ed had finished theological school at McGill University and was about to start a year’s internship at the Unitarian Universalist Church. We were excited about the launching of his new career, but dismayed at the timing. Schools had opened for the year - all positions filled - so to supplement Ed’s stipend, I accepted a job with Dr. Marvin and put my seven years of teaching experience on a resume, which languished in the new applicant file of every school district in the area.
Dr. Marvin stuck the pliers into Randy’s mouth and checked that the band on the lower left molar had bonded and dried. He reattached the wires and tilted his head in the direction of the window. “Can’t they read? It has my name on it – right there in big letters – Reserved for Dr. Marvin.”
I could see Nancy’s reaction at the reception desk. Her expression changed from amused to uncomfortable. It was a small office. The waiting and reception areas were in close proximity to the patient room. Randy’s mom, the likely parking-spot trespasser, had surely heard Dr. Marvin’s grousing. I waited for Nancy to tell the woman to move her car, but Nancy had moderated her boss's crabbiness for two years, and she was probably sick of softening onslaughts and defusing insults. This time, Nancy didn't say anything.
“Ok, now,” Dr. Marvin said as he unhooked the clip from Randy’s paper bib, “Like I told you before – stop chewing gum and eating candy." He sighed and shook his head, as though he knew Randy would break the rules. He clunked the pliers onto the metal tray and shook his finger at Randy’s nose. “I had to replace two bands today. Your mother’s not going to be happy with you when I tell her these braces aren’t coming off any time soon.” He raised the chair. “And Randy . . . don’t forget . . . Jesus and God watch you, too. All. The. Time." He bent closer to Randy's face. "They see you chew gum and eat junk.” He scowled and folded his arms. “And. They don’t like it. One. Bit.”
Plopped into everybody's doghouse, Randy's body wilted and his eyes fill with tears. He slumped to the reception desk where his mom waited for him, hands on hips. “I heard what Dr. Marvin said,” she barked. “You’re gonna pay for your own teeth, if this keeps up. You hear me?” She turned around. “And Dr. Marvin, I’m so sorry I parked in your spot. It won’t happen again.”
Even though I offered an encouraging, “Good job,” and Nancy gave him a comic book, Randy’s spirit seemed crushed by the time he and his mom left the office.
But Dr. Marvin’s spirit had perked up considerably. He strutted into the waiting room holding his King James Bible and gloated, “See? She knows she shouldn’t park there.” He paused - then opened the Bible. “Ok, now where were we? Ah yes, Proverbs 14 – Verses 15 to 20.” He looked up and smiled with what I assume he thought was a redemptive glow, one that would beam radiance directly into God’s heart, but to me it looked more like ecstatic arrogance eating the meek for lunch.
Thus began The Bible Reading - Dr. Marvin’s third daily ritual. I was amazed that Dr. Marvin could read all the ‘eths’ without stumbling.
“Do you know what that means?” he asked after he finished. He looked from Nancy to me and back to Nancy. “Do you see what this is teaching us?” He raised his eyebrows.
Neither of us spoke. I knew what it meant, and I’m sure Nancy did too. But did he? Following each reading, Dr. Marvin instructed us on the message. But did he grasp it? Not a whit. Even if God himself waltzed in and thumped Dr. Marvin across the forehead with his worn Bible, would he realize he had missed the meaning altogether. And regardless of the sanctimonious policies he placed on the world, he wasn’t even close to being a prudent man who looketh well to his going. He was a fool who rageth. He was ever-too-soon angry, he dealeth foolishly, and he despiseth his neighbour. Did he instruct us about love and goodness and mercy and forgiveness and how to recognize evil? Always. Did it dethrone his arrogance? Never.
To Dr. Marvin, anyone under forty was irresponsible and all their children ill mannered. But he liked us. He liked Ed because he was completing his studies in religion, although I doubt Dr. Marvin would have approved of Ed's liberal religious philosophy. He liked Katie because she said please and thank you and didn’t mess up his magazines. He liked me because I was a fast learner, could mix dental impression cement just right so that it resembled the pasty gunk of cornstarch and water, and like his wife of 35 years, was amenable - accommodating - compliant.
At five-foot-four with graying sandy hair and freckled cheeks, Dr. Marvin looked like a happy, gentle, fifty-year-old horse-jockey. At first meeting, he was the perfect Welcome Wagon greeter. Big smile, cheery blue eyes, warm, firm handshake. His charisma engaged me right away. Congenial. Convivial. During the interview, he showed interest in my background, Ed's ministerial studies, and our daughter Katie's creativity. We chatted about the benefits of living in Syracuse and how the lake effect plays havoc on winter travel. He talked about liking Karen Carpenter and hating the Bee Gees, which wasn't unusual with his generation. And he said if I took the job, he'd straighten Katie's teeth, even though she was only nine. I was smitten. What a wonderful man.
During my first few days on the job, Dr. Marvin sparkled with charm. We joked and laughed and appreciated each other's interests. He taught me how to handle dental instruments carefully and firmly, like a surgical nurse. He explained the science of good dental hygiene. He showed me pictures of the beautiful smiles he had created. Every now and then, Dr. Marvin blurted soft expletives against ne'er-do-wells in the news or gum-chewing children whose bands had loosened, but his laugh and charm overrode my dismay at his outbursts. Within a couple of weeks, however, it became clear that under Dr. Marvin's agreeable facade lurked a bluster-boy itching to expose the misdemeanors of the masses.
It started the day a tornado ripped through Iowa, devastating an entire town, killing dozens, and ruining acres of heartland corn and soybeans. Dr. Marvin said, “The Lord is at work,” he said. "God witnessed so much nefariousness running amok he had to rid the country of it before it infected all of America.”
That's when I learned Dr. Marvin prided himself on having a beeline to God. He proclaimed that he understood God’s thinking, he knew what God intended, and he could explain everything that God did. Dr. Marvin became irate when interlopers tramped through his private garden, as though he alone, with a little help from God, had planted the world, and since God was so darn busy with his own list of errands, Dr. Marvin took it upon himself to be Earth’s acting park ranger, monitoring societal wrongdoers. He railed against people who broke The Rules. Some of The Rules were household standards. Wash your hands after using the toilet. Eat with your mouth closed. Do your homework. Leave a tip - although Dr. Marvin’s miserly tips were simply acknowledgements of having been in the same room as the wait staff, certainly not appreciation for good service.
The majority of Dr. Marvin's Rules were based upon his personal standards of decorum, and until the rules were broken, no one knew what they were or when to follow them: Stack the waiting room magazines horizontally, at a slant, in alphabetical order. Keep the shades exactly halfway up, or down. Answer the phone on the second ring, not the first, not the third - let the client know you’re busy, but not so busy that calls won’t be answered.
Nancy and I made up stories about why clients kept coming back. We’d joke that Dr. Marvin had something on them – perhaps he saw the paltry amounts they put into the collection plate, God’s house the one place people should leave a healthy tip for the wait staff. We both knew the real reason Dr. Marvin had so many clients - his fees were the lowest in town, and he took children beginning as young as nine years old.
As far as the parking spot was concerned, Dr. Marvin didn’t use it - ever. He walked to work. Every day. Across the street from his house - while his wife waved from the window. And the whole town did know it.
According to Dr. Marvin, God’s main purpose was to penalize transgressors. All sinners punished. Immorality rebuked. Debauchery eradicated. After slapping palm fronds on the private parts of the two original degenerates and pitching them from their lavish garden, God wielded his hammer across the globe, purifying the earth of depravity.
“Why, take Noah,” Dr. Marvin had pronounced one day. “He and his family were the only worthy ones around.” He saw me start to speak and held up a wait-a-minute finger so he could be the one to say it. “Aside, of course, from the finest two of every beast and bird on earth,” he added. “See, God chose Noah to float the righteous to high ground while the wicked drowned in a global deluge, cleansing the planet of vermin.”
His eyes darted around, as though following a mosquito. “And Pompeii. Crushed. Wiped out.” He squinted at me. “Must have been a horrid place.” His breathing increased with excitement. “Bubonic Plague, Cape Verde drought, those vile Salem witches– now there’s a good one, . . uh . . ..” He stopped, his memory stymied – it couldn’t exhume any more tragedies. I considered offering a few - the Irish potato famine, the San Francisco earthquake, the Chicago fire, started by a cow, by the way, not God – but I didn’t. It seemed more judicious to let Dr. Marvin squirm in his own brain freeze than engage him in further conversation about death and destruction that, frankly, made my stomach ache.
Whenever misfortune showered onto the masses, Dr. Marvin said, "God is house cleaning." Earthquake in Bulgaria. Collision of Boeing 747’s in the Canary Islands. Supper Club fire in Kentucky. Hurricane in Florida. Tornado in Birmingham. Car pile-up on the New York Thruway during a mid-winter whiteout, which he refused to attribute to the lake effect. On and on and on – God weeding his garden of noxious plants, clearing the soil for new growth - fresh flora and fauna – so the world would be pure once again.
“God will sink California into the Pacific Ocean,” Dr. Marvin blurted once between patients. “Just you wait,” Wham. Bam. The entire state - another Sodom and Gomorra. “Look at all the homos out there,” Dr. Marvin sniffed. “Scourge on the earth. Sinful. It says so right in the Bible – I can show you. And not only them . . .,” he continued, “hippies . . . druggies . . . dirty flower children with their disgusting, painted VW buses - roving bedrooms. Unemployed degenerates, roaming up and down the California coast, having free sex . . . living off handouts. Revolting.” He opened the Bible and looked up a reading for ‘homosexual.’ I left the room to wash away the grit of prejudice and self-importance.
My spiritual ideology sat in direct opposition to Dr. Marvin's. I looked for truth in nature and in the overall goodness of the human spirit, believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all living creatures. And I believed that God, if there was one, was benevolent.
My opinion of Dr. Marvin vacillated between respect for his expertise and disdain for this irrational thinking. I wrestled with the disconnect between his gracious disposition and this colossal loathing of humanity. For the most part, I tried to ignore Dr. Marvin’s pronouncements about the direction of the world’s future with this angry, rancorous God at the helm. I figured as long as I came to work on time, listened to Dr. Marvin’s tirades against societal breakdowns and pretended to agree with everything he said about the Bible, God, and how the universe had “too many God damned people in it . . . literally, excuse my French,” I would stay in his good graces and keep my job until a school superintendent heard my resume rustle with such remarkable instructional merit I would be hired mid-year.
Everything seemed off balance in Dr. Marvin's world. So much hatred, so little kindness. Where was the love? The compassion? What had happened in Dr. Marvin's life that had made him so bitter? I wanted to steer him toward a loving world - to help him see the colors of a sunset instead of the darkness that followed, but I was his employee, not his mentor - so I asked him gentle questions about God instead. “Isn’t God supposed to be loving and compassionate? Guiding people into happiness? Giving rewards?”
“God is very good," Dr. Marvin said. "He lets worthy people live uncomplicated lives – like. . . um . . . ours. That’s our reward. But most people are wicked. They need intervention. So God created tornados and earthquakes.”
“But why does God destroy the innocent along with the wicked?" I asked, searching for the core of Dr. Marvin's thinking. "What about the good people who die? Children or grandmothers or ministers or social workers or dogs or babies?"
“Well . . .,” Dr. Marvin paused and cupped his chin. He liked what he was about to say. “See, God needs to make a point. If there’s a bad apple, everything gets affected – so it all has to go.” His face brightened with a fresh thought. “You know, it’s like leftovers - they start out pretty much ok, but they’re already damaged goods. After a couple of days, they get moldy and die.”
I knew I'd never get through the thick morass of hate stuck in his soul, so I stopped trying. I pitied this man who couldn't see the beauty surrounding him.
Dr. Marvin often mentioned a tent revival meeting held on the last Friday of every month. He wanted to attend and get his back healed. He talked about it for months but never went. I wondered if he was too scared to go. Maybe he’d find out God didn’t give two hoots about him. But one Monday morning in early spring, Dr. Marvin was in high form.
He called Nancy and me into the waiting room to give us the Good News.
“The tent was packed – hundreds, no, thousands – clapping, singing, swaying . . . some were even speaking in tongues.” He threw back his head and laughed. “Even I don’t go to that extreme, but - anyway - when the preacher asked who needed to be healed, I froze. I couldn’t move. Finally, I felt a nudge - from God - and I marched right up to the altar. The preacher put his palm on my forehead, closed his eyes, and shouted, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, BE HEALED!’ and he shoved the spirit of the Lord into my soul.”
Dr. Marvin paused. He took a breath. His eyes filled with tears. The silence was heavy.
“So what happened?” I asked, fascinated by this foreign culture.
“I was healed,” he whispered. “My back was healed. God healed me.” He swiped his hand across the tears streaming down his cheek. “It was a miracle.”
“Congratulations! You did it!” Nancy exclaimed.
“I’m happy for you,” I said. My opinion of Dr. Marvin might have been less than enthusiastic, but I didn’t wish him harm. And if he had managed to erase the back pain that so frequently interfered with his daily well-being, I was glad for him.
“Well, yes, sort of . . .,” he answered. “God did it. But then a funny thing happened.” He sighed. Another pause. Another silence. Too long, too potent.
“What happened?” Nancy and I asked, practically in unison.
Dr. Marvin plunked down on the waiting room couch and crossed his legs, his excitement building again. “When the preacher placed his hand on my forehead, I felt the spirit of the Lord permeating my soul. I was healed – magnificently, miraculously healed. The love of God took over my body and made me weak with joy.” He sighed. “It was beautiful – the most sacred encounter with God I’ve ever experienced.”
He stood up and yanked one of the shades to the center of the window. “But all that joy drained me – made me limp. I fainted - passed out cold.” He aligned the other shade. “And I collapsed. Flat on the floor. Right at the preacher’s feet.” He turned around. “And I hurt my back.” He walked past me into the patient room. “But I was healed.”
Ok, I said to myself. Have you heard enough? Is this the sort of God you want to keep hearing about day after day? A trickster? A manipulator? A brute who thinks humanity is horrid? A wretched creature who drops airplanes like pick-up-sticks and hurls cities into the ocean? Are you willing to come to work day after day and be bombarded by stories of an angry monarch who likes to play havoc with people’s lives and ambush sweet puppies and kill little babies because they inhabit the same general area as petty thieves? Enough already!
For many months I had been immersed in Dr. Marvin’s towering contempt for wrongdoers and daily reminders of mayhem being perpetrated on entire families or towns or nations because of the despicable actions of a few. I needed relief from the drama of a Demon Deity lording over an insidious courtroom of crime and punishment.
Two weeks after the back-healing incident, I quit. The timing was perfect. Ed had completed his internship in Syracuse and accepted a full-time position as minister of the Unitarian Church in Youngstown, Ohio.
I often think about poor Dr. Marvin, with that God of Acrimony, Revenge, and Fake-Healing Duplicity trapped in his head and heart. How nice it would have been if a snappy, gum-chewing God, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, frayed jeans, sneakers, and no socks, had wandered into the waiting room, patted Dr. Marvin on the shoulder, and said, "Stewart, we need to talk. Oh, and by the way, is it ok if I parked my VW bus in your spot?"