The Doctor in the River and Carla Cries
An Incident in the Life of the Celebrated Humanitarian, Carla Grissmann (1928-2011)
In Colombo Carla Grissmann and I always stayed at the Cinnamon Gardens, our rooms next door to each other. It wasn’t much of a hotel, but Carla liked the name, and she liked for me to reminisce about blowing my motorcycle down the Street of Cinnamon in Sumatra, the aroma of the drying bark wafting out of the dockside warehouses in Padang and filling the sun-baked street with its sweet scents. I don’t remember her actually using cinnamon when we cooked, but I digress.
When Carla came to my Cinnamon Gardens room, she didn’t knock. She’d scratch down the face of the wooden door, a thumb and two-finger scratch that announced her with a unique tone. I adopted her habit when I went to her room, delighting that the scratch was a more civil and discreet request for entrance than the demanding percussion of knocking and rapping. Carla, several years removed from her beloved Afghanistan by then, in her third year in Sri Lanka and despairing of the Soviets ever being dislodged from Kabul, was having trouble sleeping most nights. She had taken to using ear plugs and sleeping pills, the pills recommended by her good friend, the very large, very round Dr. Stanley. (There are lots of Sri Lankans named Stanley, something to do with the many centuries of colonization.)
On Sundays, Sri Lankans take their elephants to the local rivers to give them baths. The people revere elephants and treat them with enormous respect, and it is great Sunday entertainment to go to the river and watch elephants being bathed by their handlers. Rotund Dr. Stanley also went down to the river on Sunday. Dressed in a t-shirt, plastic sandals, and a cloth wrapped round his bulging waist, he would wade out into the river, upstream from the elephants, turn, and stand looking back at the riverbank. People would line up on the shore, and one by one they waded out to Dr. Stanley. Old men with gout, mothers holding up sickly babies, jaundiced street kids, fathers with their families, they patiently waited while Dr. Stanley conducted his Sunday free clinic. He would listen, look at eyes, take a pulse, feel around an affected area, ask a few questions, and dispense advice. At the street, buses would stop and unload, and the line for medical advice would grow long into the afternoon. But rotund Dr. Stanley never came out of the river until the last supplicant had been heard and advised. I don’t know how long he had been doing this, but he was his own institution, a national treasure, and Carla adored him, much like Sri Lankans revered their blessed elephants.
Very late one Sunday night, well into the wee hours, I awoke to a knocking on a door, not mine, but out in the hall, Carla’s door I surmised. There was more rapping, and more, a pause, and then the knocking came to my door. The Cinnamon Gardens rooms were small and narrow, with the bed to one side of the entry, and space only for a tiny nightstand. I sat up, switched on the bedside lamp, and opened the door. It was the hotel manager. “Dr. Stanley has died,” he said. “A heart attack. Ms. Grissmann doesn’t answer her door.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said. “I’ll tell her.” I pulled on some clothes, stepped out into the hallway, and scratched at Carla’s door, a long, slow downward scratch with my nails hard against the wood so that it resonated loudly. I started to scratch again, less insistently, and saw light come on in the crack beneath the door. It opened. Carla was sitting on the bed, unclothed, a sheet bunched and clutched up in front of her. “What’s happened?” she asked. I stepped into the room, closed the door and told her. Looking down at her, I saw her eyes fill with tears and her hand reached out. I sat down beside her and she cried for her lost friend. “He was a good man,” she said eventually. “A truly good man.”
She told me later that she had been vaguely aware of the hotel manager knocking, but had only come awake and opened the door because she recognized my scratching sound. There was nothing I could do except sit by her, and nothing she could do for her friend but cry. We did not even know where the doctor lived, two strangers in a foreign land. Perhaps Carla was the only Westerner who had ever waded out into the river to consult with the compassionate doctor. We did not know. But I have often recalled that night.
What was it that caused word of Dr. Stanley’s demise to thread its way through the Colombo night to Carla? Why had the manager thought it so important that he loudly disturbed the early morning quiet of his hotel? In those first moments after an unexpected death, who had decided that Carla must be informed? The doctor had the love of a nation to mourn him, but someone thought it important that Carla be among the first to mourn. It is a huge tribute to Carla, to the feelings of deep friendship and self-worth she could so instantly bestow on those around her. It is an ability few have, and fewer still use it so selflessly as did Carla Grissmann.