Friday Feature ~ “The Respite Room”

“The Respite Room” was born out of my experience of volunteering in such a place at the Children’s Hospital here in Kansas City. My wife and I worked there every other Saturday for four hours for ten years. Mostly it was a place for the families to get away from their bedside vigils. We had a TV room, a full kitchen, a quiet room, a washer and dryer, two showers, and seven bedrooms. My job was to check people in, explain what we had to offer, and then step back and leave them alone unless they asked for something. I read books. I wrote letters. I baked cupcakes. (I ate cupcakes.)

We saw all kinds of people in all emotional states. Basically we saw people at the worst moments of their lives because they all had a sick child in the hospital. Some just sat and stared out the window. Some were grateful to take a shower and wash the clothes they’d been wearing for days. Some took naps. Some fixed elaborate meals. Some found the amount of respite they needed happened to coincide with the length of a televised basketball game.

I wasn’t there to judge, only to serve. But I was struck by the attitude I saw in other volunteers who sometimes held less-than-charitable attitudes toward our guests. I suppose some of that was the kind of emotional distance you have to maintain to do that kind of work. At the other extreme were those who treated the work as a kind of science, with precise thoughts and timing and tolerance. They were brisk and efficient and aloof, and when things didn’t go according to plan, I could sense them shaking on the inside.

That was part of what I tried to achieve in my story. Just as all kinds of people were our guests, so were all kinds of people our volunteers. And sometimes that leads to incompatibility. At the end of my story the protagonist decides he’s not a good fit at the respite room and makes the decision to leave.

I had written the story based on my experience and then started shopping it around. There was no fun and games in it, no snarky narrator; I considered it an attempt at literary fiction. (See a more detailed anatomy of the story here.) According to my records, I had submitted it seven times before I sent it to Little Patuxent Review (and one more time after that). The lit mag had a theme of “social justice” and I thought my story might align with that. Apparently it did, though the acceptance email they sent was ambiguous and I had to write back to the guest editor to get clarification. A few months later the magazine interviewed me for its Concerning Craft column, and you can read that here. (That may be my actual face or it may be stock photo I stole from the internet. I can tell that that is not my cabin.) The story itself was online for a time, but that link is now broken.

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