The Begging Bowl


We all have needs; we are all mendicants at some level. Sometimes subtle: a smile that begs response, a look that hopes for more; sometimes obvious: a verbal request, or even a sign that solicits aid. But sometimes it is more blatant. Glaring. Almost rude.

I was once accused of that –of shameless, brazen panhandling. And right in my office. Near my desk.

It started out quite innocently, as I recall. I was given a clay sculpture by a Mexican patient. I don’t encourage gifts -to tell the truth I feel embarrassed by them- but she seemed so grateful for her care, her delivery, and her healthy baby, that I felt compelled to accept. The moment she struggled in with the box unannounced, her eyes shining, and her face a risus sardonicus, paralysed with joy, I realized I was trapped. No matter the contents, I was meant to appreciate it. My mind returned to Christmases past with presents of socks or itchy home-knit woolen sweaters from my aunts, and how I had to pretend not to be disappointed. So it was not an unfamiliar skill –just long-dormant.

She seemed so pleased with her choice: a poor woman in a shawl sitting on the ground holding a begging bowl. The whole figure was done in a dirty grey clay and fired so it was rough to the touch. The most striking thing about it though was her expression: depite the lack of fine detail, the face commanded attention. The eyes in particular demanded succor -redress for what Life had thrown at them; compensation for the indignity of having to beg.

Whether my patient was concerned for the aesthetic welfare of my office, or the medical system in Canada, she didn’t say. She just watched, beaming and toothful as I opened the box, hugged me, then headed for the door. She hesitated for a moment before leaving, turned her head and pinned me to the spot with her eyes. “I know you understand, doctor,” she said slowly, the smile tucked away somewhere inside.

Well, to tell the truth I didn’t at first. In fact, I didn’t know where to put the begging woman either. Eventually, I brought a little oak table from home and put the two of them in the corner by the window on the other side of my desk. The fact that my patients sit beside the bowl she proffers didn’t strike me as particularly important. In fact, I forgot about it. When you see something every day that neither moves nor changes, it becomes invisible. At least to me.

One day I was talking to an older Asian woman when I noticed her glancing at the bowl whenever I wrote something in her chart. She seemed more troubled each time she looked. At first I thought it was because of the reason for her consultation –an ovarian cyst that looked malignant on ultrasound- but she didn’t sound worried. She didn’t even look anxious. Just perplexed.

“Am I supposed to make an offering?” she said suddenly, in the middle of a question I was asking.

“Pardon me?” It was such a non sequitur, that it threw me off my line of thought.

She reached into her purse and after a moment of scrabbling the depths, her hand emerged with a two dollar coin. “Not much,” she said almost to herself as she placed it carefully in the bowl, “but the poor woman looks so sad with that empty pot.” She stared at me for a while and then smiled. “Maybe it’ll bring me good luck…”

Well, that started the deluge. The coin glinted in the bowl like a flashlight, beckoning. A single offering demanded more: Fill the bowl, it said. The begging woman said. I didn’t; I just watched with fascination each time someone saw it and felt compelled to add something. Just in case. It couldn’t hurt, was written on each face.

Occasionally, I had to empty the bowl when its contents began to spill onto the floor each time someone accidently touched the table leg with her foot. But an unfilled bowl seemed to spur even more contributions.

It was a bowl that fascinated children. Whether it was the money, or the novelty of seeing something like that in a doctor’s office, they used every distracted maternal moment to try to sneak past a knee and grab for a coin. Most mothers are quick, but some are indulgent -trusting the judgement of their experimenting child and assuming that, unlike fire or naked electrical sockets, no harm is likely to come from their curiosity.

I, who watches nervously from the wrong side of the desk, do not trust, however. I am suspicious of every lunge, every mischievous grab. I recognize my younger self and the need, the compulsion, to outwait the unusually tolerant eye and outwit the momentarily inattentive face.

But sometimes I, too, am preoccupied. Busy with the constraints of medical practice, focussed on mother not child. And so it began –softly at first, of course. A young child I apparently delivered three or four years ago while on call for my colleagues, made it past a set of knees and too-slow hands to reach the bowl. The mother caught the statue before it hit the floor, but not before the coins explored the room and the child screamed in a terrified expectation of retributive justice.

No lasting harm was done, although the little boy wouldn’t stop crying as his mother, down on her knees behind the desk, attempted to refill the bowl. I tried to reassure her, but I could see she was embarrassed and flustered. When the two of them finally surfaced from behind the desk, laden with silver, her mood had changed. She seemed more annoyed than apologetic.

“Why would you put that thing where someone could knock it over?” she said, pointing at the begging lady with anger bordering on litigany. “What’s it for, anyway? Bribes?” she added, either in a try at black humour, or more likely, threat.

I smiled in an attempt to diffuse the situation. “It was a gift from a lady I delivered,” I said, trying to remain calm now that the child, recognizing that his mother was mad at me not him, began to cry again.

“Well,” she said, huffiness creeping into her now-trembling voice, “It’s a good thing I didn’t get hurt.”

“Yes it is,” I agreed. Someone had to remain in adult mode. “Maybe I can put it somewhere else…”

Her face immediately softened. She realized she had made her point; I was listening. She lowered her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,”she whispered. “I know it was Devon’s fault…” She burrowed into me with sad, repentant eyes. “I always get upset when he cries.” She blushed and immediately reached into her purse and put two coins into the now-overflowing bowl.

Then she looked at me for a moment before speaking. “One coin is for the one I saw him put in his pocket… ” -she glared at Devon briefly- “…the other is a bribe so you don’t tell anybody,” she said chuckling softly. “And,” -she reached across the desk and touched my hand- “I want to thank you for delivering my little boy. You had no way of knowing…”

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