The streetlights had just come on, illuminating the narrow cobbled stone streets below my clinic window. I loved this time of the evening in Spain, when throngs of people gathered in the plazas; walking; shopping; exchanging the news of the day; communing around coffee shop tables that spilled out onto the colorful sidewalks. The delicious aroma of hot chocolate with churros; the sweet, haunting sound of flamenco guitar; the music of fountain water spilling into its marble trough; lovers whispers; children laughing.
No matter how many times I stepped out into the streets of Granada in the evening after work, the magic of it always thrilled me. A sensual banquet of sights and sounds and smells! I always felt as if I was stepping into a mysterious other world.
On this particular evening it was almost seven and I was thankfully hanging my scrubs up and getting ready to head home. At that moment, looking somewhat sheepish, the head of the clinic walked in and asked if I would see "....just one more patient?" Before I had time to respond he, unceremoniously, ushered me into his office where I was met by a young mother and a beautiful little girl.
After brief introductions, my boss explained to me that Emma, the little girl, was scheduled to have rhinoplasty within a few days. Her nasal passages were so restricted that she had to breathe through her mouth; a common problem among children with Down's Syndrome. My boss had recommended to her mother that she come to see me and that perhaps I could do something to help. I looked at the sweet little girl with her shiny black braids and big beaming smile. Emma's nose looked to me like a tiny crushed flower in the middle of that sweet face. However, upon examination I did feel that my work might alleviate the problem somewhat.
At that time I was a practitioner of structural integration and my boss knew that there was a session specifically designed to help with such problems. I spoke a little with Emma about what we might try. She gave me an enthusiastic smile, spontaneously grasping my hand, nodding assent and seeming very eager to follow me, as if we were about to embark on a big adventure.
Once Emma was lying on the treatment table I explained some more of what I planned to do and that I would be really gentle. She nodded, closed her eyes and lay trustingly, letting me begin. After just a few minutes Emma's eyes flew open and she looked at me, as if seeing me for the very first time. With innocent curiosity she asked me, (in Spanish) "Who are you?"..... "What are you doing?" I told her my name and once again explained what I was doing and why. Emma smiled, uttered an enthusiastic "Hola!", closed her eyes and let me continue working. A few minutes later the same thing happened. "Who are you?"...... What are you doing?" Once again I introduced myself and was greeted with a delighted "Hola!" Then Emma closed her eyes and lay still.
During our session Emma repeated these two questions on four different occasions. Each time she opened her eyes it was as if she was seeing me for the very first time; her eyes filled with a curious fascination. Each time I explained what I was doing it was as if she heard it for the first time and she seemed totally satisfied with my response. And each "Hola!" seemed to be full of total delight at our meeting.
When the session was over Emma sat up and was very happy to discover that she could take deep inhalations with her mouth closed. Her mother was overcome. I handed little Emma an apple and she gave me a big hug before jumping down from the treatment table and bidding me a happy "Adios!" Upon reaching the doorway she turned, looking at me quizzically, her head on one side and asked, "Who are you?" One last time I introduced myself to that dear little girl.
My heart was somehow heavy as I hung my scrubs up this time. I wandered out into the streets and wended my way up the windy cobbled stones towards my home. For once I walked oblivious to the sounds and smells and colors and throngs of people. When I arrived at my home I walked on by and continued up the hill until I reached my favorite marble bench. It was more like a low, wide, marble table. I always loved sitting there, right on top of the hill in the old town. It blessed me with one of my favorite views in the world.
Down in the valley, below the old town of Granada, the River Darro wends its way past little homesteads and farms and through wild countryside scattered with olive and almond trees. In the distance the Sierra Nevada mountains nestle into the horizon. And framed by the snow-capped mountains, high on the opposite hill from Granada's old town stands the majestic Alhambra fortress. Built in 889 and the fire of inspiration for many a Moorish poet, the Alhambra remains a most mystical place. How many hours I used to sit lost in reverie on my bench, imagining all the lives and stories that had unfolded through the centuries inside those fortress walls.
But on that night it was as if nothing existed around me. I lay face up on my bench, feeling dazed. All I could see in my mind's eye was Emma's innocent little face, again and again asking me, "Who are you?"...... "What are you doing?" My heart felt as if it was going to burst open. I really didn't know what was happening. I just knew that this sweet little girl had touched my life profoundly that night. It seemed to me that it was the very first time that I had ever really heard those two questions.
Twenty-five years later Emma's words still come to me often. Whenever they do I always feel them as if for the first time. "Who are you?"..... "What are you doing?" Time and again Emma's simple yet persistent questions evoke in me a pause, as I feel reflected in them the words of my beloved Rilke..... "Be a beginner, always a beginner!"