As I turn to walk out into the kitchen, the man—Erik—is still standing there, fossilized in the hallway. In the backlight coming from the kitchen, he looks like a silhouette. A lost and shrunken silhouette. You almost want to go over and put your arms around him, stroke his thin hair and tell him everything is going to be all right.
The kettle is crackling and roaring. I really should have it descaled soon. There isn’t a sound coming from the living room. I take it the man must have dislodged himself from his spot in the hallway and is in there also, but they obviously aren’t talking together right now. Not loudly, in any case. Maybe they’re whispering or busy inspecting the living room. I’m certain that something is wrong. That they have experienced something, something traumatic. I’ve seen that kind of thing before. Relatives in shock and grief, dissolved by crying, petrified, aggressive, in disbelief, paralyzed, hysterical. There are many different reactions to traumatic experiences. I feel bad for the couple out there, whatever it is they’ve been exposed to. It’s a good thing that I at least know how to handle that kind of thing, or ought to know—no, of course I know it. I’ve faced desperate relatives many times. It just feels a little unusual here in my own home. Especially when I don’t even know what’s wrong.
They’re sitting in the green chairs by the coffee table. Good—that’s where I imagined they would be sitting.
“So, you live here then,” says the woman, Hanne—I barely know her well enough to be thinking about her name at this point—as I pour coffee and sit down on the other side of the coffee table. I shove the bowl with some butter cookies over toward them; I couldn’t find anything else to offer them. How should I answer that? The man, Erik, says nothing.
I repeat that we have lived here for half a year now. It’s all still a bit new; as they can see the garden still needs a little work. But she doesn’t even seem to be listening. The man’s eyes are focused on the coffee cup, which he is moving back and forth between the saucer and his mouth. I ask them where they live. And how they know Johannes,
“Your husband is a doctor, no? Out at the hospital,” the woman says without answering my questions.
Actually, I thought they knew that. But evidently they don’t really know him that well. In other circumstances, I would have responded more conversationally: yes, Johannes is indeed a doctor, works at the medical department at Næstved Hospital, used to be at Copenhagen University Hospital. Might have even asked about their work. Whether they come from Næstved. That kind of thing. What you do when you meet new people. It’s really not the content of what you’re saying that’s important, even though that’s part of it, naturally; the most important thing is that something is being said. To show interest, kindness, act like a rational person others can have faith in. But there is something about this entire situation—even though I honestly don’t know what kind of situation this is—that makes me satisfied with just confirming what she has asked about.
“Then he has also taken the Hippocratic oath?”
“Oh yes, I assume so. I mean, of course he has. You have to, to become a doctor, to get your authorization…”
Why in the world did she ask that? Her tone has that sarcastic edge again. I’m almost certain now. The man, Erik, is sitting there staring down at his hands resting on his knees, his naked crown shining through his thin, sandy-colored hair.
“So, therefore he has pledged under oath to do everything he can to—”
Is that Ida crying? I jump up, sheer reflex. “Sorry, I have to go in and check on Ida, our daughter … One moment ….”
She has already stopped by the time I come in there. She’s lying with her head turned to the side, breathing quietly, in and out. She’s sleeping. Her bright curls damp with sweat at the roots. No stink from her diaper. Maybe she was just dreaming. I pull the comforter down around her a little better, kiss her lightly on the forehead and go back into the living room.
“Well, so you two also have children…” The voice cuts through the air before I even reach the sofa.
“Hanne,” the man says, laying his hand on her arm, “don’t you think we really should…” It sounds almost as if he’s pleading.
“We should nothing at all! Don’t you think she has the right to know what—” Her voice is shrill, on the verge of breaking. “—what kind of a—a murderer she’s married to.”
“That woman’s husband is … a murderer! A goddamned murderer!” She screams that last part.
I make my voice as calm and as urgent as I can.
“Now, listen. I know that my husband does everything humanly possible to save his patients’ lives, to make them better. Everything possible with the treatments we have.”
Yes, mistakes do happen, which I know only too well. After all, doctors are just people too. Still, despite everything, really serious mistakes happen rarely.
I try to catch her glance, make eye contact:
“But there are people that are so sick that they cannot be cured. No one can cure them. Unfortunately. There are illnesses we really can’t do much about. Some types of cancer, for example. I understand fully how terrible it is to lose someone who—”
“What do you understand? Our daughter is dead—do you understand that? Our sweet, beautiful Marie, do you understand that? Twenty-two years old, not even….” The woman’s face collapses, and she begins to sob. Her body doubles over; the long, convulsive sobs sound almost as if they are being dragged from the inside out.
“Hanne. It doesn’t do any good.” The voice is low, his hand still resting on her arm. “Don’t you think we should…”
“I don’t think anything … not anymore,” she sobs.