Allow me to preface this tale with a disclaimer. I never eat fast food. ( hand to forehead, palm out, drama queen style). I'm a doctor! I know better than to put that crap in my blessed vessel. (now hand to chest, insulted protest pose). What, you don't believe me? Okay, maybe "never" is an exaggeration. Hardly ever. Rarely. Once in a while. That better? Alright. Just want to be clear. On with the story.
I was running late. I was hungry. I hadn't eaten since breakfast, a cup of coffee and a banana. I was on my way to therapy, a half hour drive followed by an hour of intense mental calorie burning, followed by a half hour drive home. The blessed vessel needed fuel.
My ravenous eyes spotted a Wendy's on the other side of the street. Screech! Swerve! I cranked the G's on my '89 Volvo, took the turn at a blistering 18 mph, and pulled into the drive-through.
"Welcome to Wendy's, may I help you?" A remarkably clear woman's voice issued from the speaker box.
"An order of fries please. With mustard" (don't knock it 'til you've tried it).
"A dollar thirty two at the window, please drive forward."
Taking my foot off the brake pedal, I let the volvo inch forward as I rummaged in my purse for money. When I saw the window out of the corner of my eye, I stepped on the brake and continued rummaging. A dollar...a quarter....a penny...I became aware of a figure at the window. "Sorry, I'm just looking for exact change."
"It's all right. Take your time." The same clear voice that had come from the box. Finally giving up on finding the right change, I grabbed another dollar bill and looked up to hand her the money.
Doctors get used to surprises. We see and hear so many unbelievable things that eventually everything is believable. You put a noodle in your nose? No problem. You drink a quart of rotgut every day? I see. Your parents locked you in a dark closet? Tell me more. From the laughable to the horrific, we learn to react with no reaction. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that the best poker players are ER docs.
I was grateful for this training when I saw the face in the window. The woman (I only knew it was a woman because I had heard her voice) had obviously been in some kind of terrible accident. Her face contained all the right parts, but in all the wrong places. It looked like a wax sculpture that had been left in dappled sun to melt unevenly. The result was a hideous gargoyle mask. Scar tissue twisted her mouth into a grimace. Her eyes were pinched and uneven. Her nose sat askew. One whole side of her face was shorter than the other. To say it was shocking is a gross understatement.
"Here you go. I couldn't find change." I handed her the bills, smiling normally, I hoped. As she turned to the register, I imagined the reactions she must get from the hundreds of people driving through here every day. Many of the cars would have kids in them, kids who don't control their words or faces. Did she hear cruel comments? Laughter? Shocked gasps? Did she see stares of pity and horror? Embarrassed averted faces? Probably all of the above and more. The scarring was not new. She had lived with this for a while.
"Thank you, have a nice day," she said, handing me my fries and mustard.
"And you," I replied, and pulled the volvo away from the window, my bouncy mood sobered by admiration.
Kudos to Wendy's for hiring her. Kudos to them for seeing the woman behind the mask and giving her the job she was capable of. Kudos and more kudos.
But double, triple, quadruple the kudos to her. She didn't hide. She didn't hole up at home. She didn't find work in some back kitchen or night janitor service. She took a job that literally put her front and center. She chose to meet the public's eye day after day after day. She is as brave, in my opinion, as any warrior.
I will never forget that face, not for its contorted appearance, but for the powerful courage that burns behind it and shines through it. I have added another hero to the ranks.