Some things seem to go unappreciated don’t they? They’re background noise. Shadows in the moonlight. You might think that this doesn’t apply to medicine, but it does. Much of what we do is taken for granted –or at least taken for expected… appreciated, but for a variety of reasons, not publically acknowledged. And that’s fine with me; I’m certainly publically humble. Shy. I seek shadows not spotlight. I’m not certain I would know what to do on a pedestal.
Besides, I don’t do what I do for accolades –I embarrass easily. And I’m content with smiles, or even a face that signals thanks; I probably should have gone into Pathology, or some other solitary field where the propensity to blush is not a handicap. They didn’t teach us how to accept praise in Medical School; they didn’t even mention blushing –or maybe I just missed that class.
But, not to diminish the appreciation I do receive –I’m an obstetrician, and in the fullness of l’accouchement there are congratulations all round. Thanks in spades. It is enough -it is their moment after all, not mine.
And anyway, I forget things –forget people, for example. I may have seen them every month for a year, and yet on the street, they are sometimes just faces that smile at me when I pass, and like most faces, vaguely familiar… Maybe. Some eyes seem to ask for more than just a fleeting nod but these are requests to which I dare not accede lest I be required to remember something of their past… I don’t do pasts the justice they deserve sometimes. Pasts matter; they are what knit the fabric we wear and to ignore them is to ignore the coloured patterns that make the present so vibrant. The future so hopeful.
Memory was a given in Medical School –it was what you had to have to get there in the first place. It was not so much educere –a Latin word suggesting drawing out or eliciting something already there- as inducere –putting something in that they wanted you to have… But I digress.
I have carried this neural handicap with me my whole career: my memory seems selective at times. I am prone to remember things I don’t need –a hair style on an elderly lady, a lilting way of speaking, the eyes of a woman looking at her newborn baby… Interesting things that help to flavor the roiling stew of facts and numbers I’ve stored behind the eyes I try so hard to keep neutral in the office. Things that disguise the otherwise unadorned potpourri of diseases and anatomical discrepancies hidden beneath the words that stagger so reluctantly from my patient’s lips. Things –flowers- so precious in the world of suffering my job is wont to assess.
I need to escape sometimes: long walks along the beach, a movie, dinner with friends… or dinner alone. They’re all tricks to dampen down the past. Too much past, and you’re condemned to live there –or at least visit uncomfortably often. And for me, dinner in a nice, crowded little restaurant at table along the wall is the perfect anodyne. Like a bodhisattva, I am of the world, but comfortably without as I sit, hidden in the corner, sipping casually on a glass of wine, watching others do the same. I am peacefully alone in the crowd, digesting my thoughts in joyful anticipation of the ritual of food.
I was at one such place a few months ago. The room was crowded, and quietly boisterous as I was shown to a table by a window overlooking… Well, it was so dark outside, it overlooked the reflection of the room –a double room, in effect -perfect for inspecting plates on other tables and who was sitting in front of them. Everybody was dressed as if they knew others would be watching them: the woman nearby in the designer jeans, so tight she looked unable to move, with only a salad in front of her; and her partner, casually elegant, tucking into some sort of pastivorous mixture that steamed as he forked it. They were quietly avoiding something –communication, likely. Others nearby were toasting each other with sloppy, uncertain gestures, waving napkins at one another as each attempted to prevent the inevitable spills. Everyone seemed engaged in something; everyone was alive and enjoying it.
My eyes were drawn to the aisle where I’d entered. The room was full to overflowing –nobody was leaving- but I could see one of the servers staring at me. She was a tall young woman with her blond hair pinned back into an attractive bun, and as usual there was something familiar about her face. She was talking excitedly to a man behind the bar and nodding in my direction. At first I was flattered; I thought perhaps she had noticed that my wine glass was almost empty. Great place, this, I thought and smiled back at her. She returned the smile with an expression I’d seen before. Then a puzzled look attacked her face, as if my smile had confirmed something. She bowed her head for a moment, as if thinking it through, and suddenly her eyes opened wide and I could see her take a deep breath.
Then, as luck would have it, there was one of those stochastic diminutions of sound that seem to occur in restaurants from time to time as people decide to pursue their dinner for a moment rather than their conversations.
“You got me pregnant!” the server screamed in her excitement, pointing at me and walking towards my table with an intense but unreadable look on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or bent on revenge. Me? I just hoped she was mistaken.
The restaurant was muted when she said it. Completely silent when she’d finished. Everyone turned to stare at me, the accused, as if I’d abandoned her after a night of debauchery. I could see the look of disapproval on the woman in the designer jeans. Perhaps she was regretting her choice of partner for the evening but I couldn’t tell because she was staring at me with a malevolence I’ve only seen in movies. People began to whisper to each other and I could sense, as much as hear, guffaws and sniggers. Caught, I could hear them think. Serves him right!
I could tell they were all waiting to see what the server would do once she reached my table. There was a palpable silence when she did. They were preparing themselves for a battle. Deciding what to do. How to react. What is the appropriate protocol to be followed in such a raw and unusual circumstance anyway? Grab me and pin me down? Call 911? Take a video of me with their cell phones and post it on YouTube? I thought about all this as she approached, but my social skills had never been stretched that far before.
In the eternity of those last few steps before she reached me, I could feel my face redden, and my mind racing like it is said to do in the moments before an impending and inevitable accident. I scoured mental relationship files and flipped through the disappointing ones in the blink of an eye, desperately searching for some mistake I’d made. An indiscretion, perhaps. A date I’d forgotten –or blocked from conscious memory. Anything. But, for some inexplicable reason, there was nothing to exculpate. In terms of the reaction I was provoking, my life was undeserving. Banal, if not entirely flawless.
Suddenly she was there, standing excitedly in front of me in the tomb-like silence of a room full of frowns. Their eyes, their expressions, their postures –all were balancing on a knife’s edge. Hoping for a resolution of the tension and yet dreading, what was to come.
She stared at me for a moment, teetering on the edge of a conflicting internal debate on what she should do now that she had an unanticipated and, no doubt, unwanted audience. Then her eyes twinkled and her face dissolved into a smile so large it hardly left room for ears; so genuine, I thought she might faint with ecstasy; and so intense I had to stand to acknowledge it. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it until it hurt. And then, putting her arm around me, turned to the crowd and said, “Sorry folks. I didn’t mean to disturb your dinners. It’s just that I never did thank my doctor for solving my infertility problem!” She pulled me close and kissed me on the cheek and then promptly blushed when the room erupted into applause. “I’m so impulsive sometimes,” she said and backed away, still holding my hand.
The room slowly settled back into its usual rhythm after that, and she walked quickly back to the bar to see if her next order was in. Later, when I was simply a mildly diverting memory in the drunken crowd, my own server –fortunately one with an unfamiliar face- presented me with a bill with a smiley-face drawn on it, and a big zero where the charges should have been. But the vaguely familiar-faced owner accosted me as I left.
“I’m sorry about that, doctor,” he said, looking embarrassed as he shook my hand. “My wife gets so excited about things now that she’s a mother… Never rests any more -even here. She’s always finding something to do.” He looked at me for a moment as if he wanted to tell me something else and then smiled and turned away. As I reached the door, however, he spoke again. “Can you get us a boy next time, though, doc..? The girl we got never seems to sleep.”