While sitting in the waiting room, I had another coughing fit, which caused everyone to turn and stare. My throat was so sore; I didn’t want to swallow my own spit. Every time I coughed, my ears felt like they were going to burst.
My husband was sitting across from me, with our daughter in his lap. They were flipping through a tattered magazine together, but both paused to watch me until I got my coughing under control.
The door to the back office opened, and a nurse called out, “Jan? Jan Fisher? ”
I smiled at my daughter, and said, “Mommy will be back in a few minutes. Be good for Daddy. ”
The nurse made pleasantries as she led me to a room. Once the door was shut, she said, “What are we seeing you for today? ”
“I’ve had a nasty cold for two weeks now, and I want to make sure I don’t have an ear infection, or pneumonia, ” I said.
She scribbled something in her chart, took my blood pressure, and said, “The doctor will be in to see you soon. ”
Fifteen minutes later, there was a quick knock on the door before it opened. The doctor was of Asian decent, and appeared to be in his late thirties. He was reading through my chart as he came in. “Hi, I’m Doctor Kim. ”
“What are we seeing you for today, Jan? ”
I repeated the statement I’d given the nurse.
“Okay, we’ll have a look. ” Dr. Kim put the chart down, and went to wash his hands. As the water started, he said, “Has it started snowing outside? ”
“No, but my daughter keeps hoping it will. ”
“My kids too. ”
As he was drying his hands, he said, “So what’s your faith? ”
Caught completely off guard by the question, I stammered, “Um…. Well… I don’t really have one. ”
He smiled pleasantly, and threw the paper towel away. “Oh, come on now, everyone has one. ” He stood staring at me, expecting an answer.
I try to avoid conflict like the plague. Not only am I soft spoken, but I generally don’t care if people agree with my deeply held beliefs, so I keep them to myself. But I refuse to lie about them when backed into a corner. I could tell he wasn’t going to like my answer. Very few people ever have. I wished he would just check me for an ear infection, and shut up.
“I’m an atheist, ” I mumbled.
I was an atheist as a small child, because my parents were atheists. I had a ‘crisis of faith’ when I was about eight because my grandmother told me all about God and took me to church. But by the time I was fifteen, I had come around to my parent’s way of thinking, and I became an atheist in my own right.
“Really? ” he said, and picked up an otoscope.
“Yes, ” I said, sighing.
He made a noise in his throat, as if to say, how interesting. Putting the otoscope in my right ear, he looked inside, and then went to the other ear.
“Do you know the saying; there are no atheists in a foxhole? ” he asked.
“Yes, ” I said, and wondered if he’d seen any infection in my ears.
He took the disposable end off the otoscope. “Say ah. ” Once I opened, he shined the light in my mouth.
Apparently not believing the answer I’d given him, he said, “It means that when someone is afraid for their life, like for example when someone is fighting in a war, they find their faith. ”
I made a noise in my throat, hoping it sounded like, how interesting.
After putting the otoscope down, he felt my neck for swelling in my lymph nodes. “Do you like to read to your daughter? ”
Thank goodness we’re changing the subject, I thought. “I read to her all the time. We both have fun with that. ”
“I’ve always read to my children too. We just finished reading the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia. Have you ever read that series? ”
I guess we’re not changing the subject. “Yes, I read them when I was a kid, but I don’t think my three-year-old is ready for those yet. And yes, I know they’re religious stories. ”
He took his stethoscope off his neck, and put the ends in his ears. With a patronizing voice, and pity in his eyes, he said, “They’re an allegory. ”
“Yeah, ” I nodded, feeling the blush in my cheeks. Ashamed that I hadn’t come up with the word allegory myself, and angry that he seemed to think I was too stupid to use it.
He put the stethoscope on my upper back and said, “Take some deep breaths for me. ”
I started taking a deep breath, and we had to wait out the coughing fit that ensued. Once I was able, I took another deep breath, and he moved the stethoscope. While listening to my lungs, he said, “Did you know that C. S. Lewis used to be an atheist too? ”
I exhaled and said, “No. ” before taking my next breath.
Dr. Kim said, “Yes he was. There’s another great book he wrote. It tells the story of how Lewis became a Christian. ”
He stepped away from me, and put the stethoscope back around his neck. I wondered if he had even heard my lungs through his talking. He was looking at me, expecting some kind of response to his statement, so I nodded.
He went to my chart and made some notes and said, “You should check it out, it’s called, ‘Mere Christianity’. I’m sure you would find it interesting. ”
“Okay, ” I said. “Do you think I need antibiotics? ”
He started walking to the door and said, “No. You’ve just got a virus. Antibiotics won’t help you with that. But call back if it hasn’t cleared up in another week. Have a good evening. ” He smiled as he walked out the door.
I just sat there for a moment, confused and angry, and wishing my regular doctor had been available. I shook my head, got off the exam table, and headed towards the waiting room. As I walked, I went over the strange conversation in my head, wondering if the doctor was like that with all of his patients, or just me. I’ve found over the years that because I keep my thoughts to myself, some people assume I don’t have any.
Then, as I put my hand on the doorknob to the waiting room, I had a realization. It was in my chart. We’d recently changed insurance companies, and when I had my initial meeting with my new regular doctor, he’d asked pages of questions. One of those questions had been my religious preference. Dr. Kim must have seen that I was an atheist before he’d even asked. That was why he’d asked. I felt as though he’d somehow taken advantage of me, and I berated myself for letting him.
In the waiting room, my daughter saw me, and jumped off her dad’s lap. “Mommy! ”
I picked her up, and hugged her close, needing the comfort. My husband gathered up our coats, and we headed towards the hallway. My husband asked, “What did the doctor say? ”
I gave him a wry smile. “He said I’m going to Hell of course. ”
“He said it’s a virus, so no medications for me. But he was so busy proselytizing, that I don’t know if he really paid attention to my symptoms or not. ”
My husband stopped in the hallway, anger creasing his eyebrows. “Then let’s go make him look again. ”
“No, I’m fine, ” I said, waving him off. We continued down the hall, and my daughter pointed at a picture at the wall and said, “Look at the butterflies. ”
I stopped at the picture and said, “I like the blue one best. How about you? ”
My daughter thought about it for a second.
My husband, undoubtedly not believing that I was fine, tried to change my mind, “Jan…”
My daughter interrupted. “The yellow one is best. ”
“It’s very pretty, ” I said. I set her down to walk on her own, and took a hold of her hand. I turned to my husband and said, “I don’t care if I am sick. I’m not going back to that doctor. ”
My husband glared, not liking that answer. I tried to reassure him. “I’m fine. Honest. He said to come back in a week if the symptoms didn’t get any better. I’m so tired, and I hurt all over. Can we please just go home? ”
My husband relented with a nod, and took my daughter’s other hand. As we walked towards the car, I asked myself for the thousandth time, Why do Christians always seem to think that I’ll change my faith so easily? I’ve been an atheist for more then half of my life. But the good doctor seems to think reading a book will give me an epiphany. What he doesn’t understand, is that I’ve already had an epiphany. It just wasn’t the one he wanted me to have.