Lying down in the doctor’s office for my physical. The physician’s assistant is telling me about her Catholic school education. “This was the sixties, and in those days the nuns wore really formal habits,” she says, the icy touch of the stethoscope on my chest. “I used to try to look under the big white collars whenever one of the sisters walked past my desk. I always wanted to know what was under there!”
“Were they very strict?”
“I can’t really remember…although I did run into trouble with them once, in high school.” She chuckles. “I remember we were learning about India, and how there were so many people were dying because there was so much poverty and not enough to go around. I raised my hand and asked, ‘Wouldn’t this situation be solved if we could just send them birth control?'” She chuckles again, the silvery chill of the stethoscope sliding over my skin. “She was so angry! But I honestly didn’t know I was saying anything bad.”
The examination room exists in a vacuum of sound, a serene white cube of purified air. “My mother went to Catholic school her whole life, even college,” I say, staring at the blank ceiling. I normally don’t talk this much to strangers.
“Really? Which one?”
“Oh, she’s from the Philippines, so she went to a women’s college over there.”
“My sister went to Chestnut Hill.”
“I have some friends that went there for grad school. They said it was a really pretty campus.”
“Oh, it is.” She places her fingertips on my throat, under my chin. Doctors always had cold, soothing hands. “My sister went there. It’s funny–my sister was such a straight arrow all through high school, and then she went off to Catholic college and became the biggest hippie ever!” She gives a faraway laugh. “Both my sisters did, actually.”
I wonder where such a woman would be, forty years later. What did that generation look like today? “What are they doing now?”
“They both passed a few years ago,” the smile audibly frozen in her voice.
“Oh–I’m sorry,” I say automatically. I am never good in these situations.
“Yes, they both had uterine cancer. It was very sudden and unexpected.” The easy canter of the conversation has come to an abrupt halt. Cold hands on my stomach, on my clavicle. We are both sorry our talk has made this unforeseen turn.
After a second that feels like an eternity, she says, “Yes, I miss my sisters.” A long-ago sigh is interwoven in her voice, causing a barely perceptible tremble. “We had a lot of fun together.” She motions for me to sit up, and I do.
The examination room is cold, bright, absent of noise, like the inside of a refrigerator.
For the rest of my physical, the physician’s assistant does not meet my eyes.