Me and My Mouth
I've spent a lot of my life saying things that I probably shouldn't have. You know that feeling when you start saying something and half way through the sentence you're going 'No, this is going to sound wrong!' But if you stop mid sentence it's going to sound worse.
When I first met the mother of a girl friend, I was keen to get on and make a good impression straight away. So, when we drove around to her house and got out of the car I noticed that there were vincas growing out a crack in the pavement. I'd heard her mother was into gardening, so when she came out to meet us, I began the conversation with, “I see you've got vincas growing out of your crack.” Fortunately she had a sense of humour.
Another time I was driving along the West Coast highway, and I had my little dog sitting on my lap. He's a Jack Russell cross and fairly small, so if he sits on my lap he can see out the window. I didn't see the police car go past me until it was too late. They put on the alarm and flashing lights and pulled over in front of me. One young copper got out and came to the window of my car. By that stage my dog was sitting on the passenger seat and I just sat there as the copper leaned into the window.
The copper started with “What do think you're doing driving with the dog on your lap?”
I paused, thought about his question, then answered with, “He's kind of handy 'cause I don't have an air bag.” It was a line I'd thought about previously, and yes, it was an attempt to be funny. But I'd said it with such a straight face, the copper just looked at me like I'd told him I was from outer space. He then asked for my licence and went back to join his mate in the squad car. This time I was lucky too because I could see them in their car laughing and shaking their heads. After checking my details on the computer, the copper came back and gave me a warning.
But the one really significant time I said something weird, or stupid (and I'm kind of embarrassed about it) was in 1997 just after I'd had open heart surgery. The surgery was to fix up a deformed aortic valve. A congenitally deformed valve. This was one of the disadvantages of coming from old colonial West Australian family. In the mid nineteenth century there wasn't a huge choice in the gene pool. I sometimes tell people that parts of my family tree look more like a vine than a tree.
The surgery went very well, and after spending a few hours in intensive care, they took me up to the ward and let me sleep. Then, early in the morning, the doctors came around for their ward visit. I'd been awake earlier but gone back to sleep. The three doctors all stood at the end of my bed: The heart surgeon from Sri Lanka, called Dr Tillekeratne, (the only one I really knew), a male registrar from Pakistan and a pretty female medical student from Vietnam. I'm not sure how long they'd stood there but the nurse woke me up by tapping my shoulder. And what I saw were three doctors, from various different ethnic backgrounds, standing at the end of bed where the television normally was. They all stood there quietly smiling. And I don't know if it was the morphine or the disorientation or just a stupid quirk of my nature, but I started the conversation with, “Wow! who switched over to SBS?” (SBS being the ethnic broadcasting service).
This, of course, was a situation where they didn't find what I said funny. Overseas doctors no doubt receive a lot of racist reactions. I can only imagine the bigoted remarks they have to deal with. So they all just shuffled nervously at my bed and asked how I felt. The nurse, one hand held over her mouth, had to leave the room. I could tell she was ready to explode with laughter.
Anyway, over the next few days it must have become clear to them that I was more of a silly wag than a racist. We all got on very well, and we were able to share a few jokes, and even a bit of friendly banter about cricket. Then Dr Tillekeratne got me back a beauty! It was my seventh day at the hospital, and I was pretty well ready to go home. In fact, like most people, I was itching to get out of there. But they wouldn't let me go until my resting heart rate was below 80 beats a minute. After that much trauma it takes a heart some time to come back to its normal pace.
So that morning, as I sat there slow breathing, meditating and just hoping my heart rate would stay low enough, the two doctors and the medical student all came in to see me. I politely greeted them and they smiled and asked if I was ready to go home. I of course replied that I was one hundred percent etc. Then Dr Tilerkeratena said, “Well, we'd better check your heart.” I sat there confused, thinking 'what do you mean? You know everything about my heart, and besides, you can see it on the monitor, beating just bellow 80.' Then he suggested that the pretty young female medical student – and she really was pretty – should listen to my heart manually, “Just to be sure”. So she came over to me, smiled, and in the most voluptuous manner, undid my pyjama top and place her stethoscope onto my chest. And all I could do was look at the male doctors, as my heart flew up into the early 90s, and shake my head, thinking, 'Damn, you bastards!'. Dr Tillekeratne then smiled, wobbled his head politely, and said, “Sorry Mr Smith, maybe tomorrow.”