On Remembering Faces


Faces are important; they are like little signs we wear to allow others to recognize us. Unlike, say, fish they are distinctive and carry verbal labels further enabling meaningful categorization. A face without a name begs inquiry; a name without a face, recollection or even retrospection…

In a way, remembering faces is a sign of respect: you have had dealings with them; they had temporal significance for you; they were and remain important. And in standing out from the crowd –egregious in its original sense of standing out from the herd- there is a bond, however tenuous. I passed a smile in a hospital corridor the other day and I mistook it for agape: that look we donate to total strangers that we pass like ships. And I saw the look of disappointment and saw her whisper something to her partner who glanced at me as well. She stopped and turned a few steps past me and addressed me by name. And even when she explained that I’d operated on her mother a few years ago, my recollection of the event remained wrapped in cloud. Overcast.

Some people have the eidetic skill of instant recognition and with that identification the story of the paths they shared, along with the appropriate assignation of adventures encountered along the way. It immediately sets both parties at ease; there is no awkward pause, no need for hasty explanations of how each was once significant to the other.

But recognition is a blessing not equally bestowed. There are times for many of us when a chance encounter contains as much information as leaves on a tree, and an individual is as anonymous as a fallen twig. I cast no aspersions, but memory has a way of defocussing details, melding them into a delicious stew of once-tasted dinners. Or am I making the mistake of assuming I am representative of the average other? A mental excuse: an inadvertent equivalent of psychological projection?

I have been in medical practice for many years now; I have encountered myriad people along the way, delivered uncounted thousands of babies -maybe I do have an excuse… And yet to forget a face that greets me on the street -a face with which I have had a nine month relationship, perhaps- still seems rude. Insensitive. The fact that it may have been ten years ago -or more- has not dimmed their memory of the relationship and its consequences. The child at their side refusing eye contact with me is an integral part of their life -one they shared with me long ago. They live the memory; I claw desperately at the door of a cupboard where I have stored the files.

Some faces I remember, of course: some people have a way of welding their identity onto the shelf -forever distinct, immutably present and on display. They are the caffeine of memory, but like dessert, uncommon at most meals.

Now I have to admit that most people are interesting, and all are distinctive -or seem so- at the time. Even the most obnoxious patient sows her seeds; recollection depends not so much on the quantity as the quality of the experience. And it may not be a two-way street. We all walk at different speeds, and touch with different skin. We may hold our expectations in common -there are some universals that seem self-evident- but our perceptions are uniquely our own. We, alone, wear them, feel them, live them… They are why we take home different messages -patient and doctor. They are what individuate us. Separate us…

But I would still love to return the unsolicited smile of remembrance with a look of wide-eyed honesty.  I need a book somewhere inside with a specially marked page that I could read and interpret quickly enough to make it seem that her face was never stored in the bottom of some pile; that she, at least, was special. Unforgettable.

But my guilt shines through each time I pass; I hope they understand I don’t mean to forget. But oh, it presses to my memory, Like damnèd guilty deeds to sinners’ minds –Shakespeare understood, I think… Even if I’ve forgotten the context.

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