There is something magical about a face. It is at the same time familiar and yet mysterious. And although it contains many parts with disparate functions, these are somehow secondary. We see the face as a unit, then judge the components; it is a face first, and only subsequently an aggregation of details. It is the whole which imparts meaning, stirs emotion, engenders response. Only then do the ingredients surface. As St. Jerome said: ‘The face is the mirror of the mind, and [the] eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.’ So I suppose it should come as no surprise that development of reliable facial recognition technology is considered so important. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-33199275
But there are other domains in which it matters, too. Less technical perhaps, and yet more intriguing. Sometimes it’s not just the perpetuation of facial patterns enabling recognition from encounter to encounter that garner attention so much as a metamorphosis of something far more elusive, far more difficult: the ravages of age. There is something about a face that transcends Time itself. We are recognizably who we are despite the years: My comfort is that old age, that ill layer-up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face, as Shakespeare has King Henry V say.
Of course we all suspect we have escaped; daily visits to the mirror cannot see the change any more than frequent glances at a clock can spot the hour hand’s slow progress. Whatever we suppose Time to be, and however we conceive of its passage, barring the before and after of catastrophic events, its gait is not fixed, nor its effects on us often noted from day to day. We mostly live our lives in relative time, and adjust our expectations so gradually they are only apparent to others who happen upon us after long and unexpected intervals. And even then, unless confronted, go unspoken by and large -undescribed, unless in favorable terms.
The woman on the other side of my desk looked familiar -in the way some new patients seem to do; I could almost place her. Almost… I see a lot of people –some more frequently than others, to be sure- and yet after a few months or years of absence, even those with whom I’ve had extended exposure tend to generify. Recognition often requires initiation on their part. Prodding. Reminiscing… The encounter often ends with embarrassment or pretense on my part, disappointment on theirs, degenerating into an inadvertent charade for both of us. I don’t wish it so, but alas, I have not been blessed with an eidetic memory of faces past.
Of course, it’s easier to recall some people. They adopt a position on a chair that begs for remembrance, or a way of holding their head that is unique. With Sally -the name on my computer daysheet- it was her face. I tried to analyse what made it so memorable, as I sorted through some papers on my desk. Her eyes? They were brown and calm –they did not seem hunters at the moment, nor imprisoned behind long lashes; not deep set in shadows, not hiding behind thick distorting lenses. In fact they were far from striking or even distinctive. Her nose was neither large nor mishapen, and her mouth seemed to sit comfortably in its alloted place and smiled only when appropriate, if infrequently.
She noticed me sneaking glances at her as I pretended to play with the keys on my computer, and sighed. “You’re trying to remember, aren’t you, doctor?”
Her voice, too, was familiar, and yet only vaguely so. She was like some book I’d read years ago, whose style and mood, were immediately recognizable, and yet the story, and the ending, were obscure. Tantalizingly close, but so far irretrievable.
“You haven’t changed at all from the first time I met you,” she said, painting my face with her eyes. “Hardly any grey in those curls, still no wrinkles, and that unmistakable look of innocent puzzlement whenever the focus is deflected back onto you.”
Why would anybody remember that? I smiled to diffuse my discomfort.
“Same smile, too,” she whispered, sitting back in her chair triumphant in her recollections. I was evidently who she expected to find -the one she had remembered. Her memory had served her well so far and her face was celebrating.
Who was this anyway?
She straightened up in her chair and sat forward slowly. Deliberately. “I know I’m just here for a pap smear, and you’re a busy man, doctor, but given our history, would you mind if I asked you a personal question?”
I hate it when somebody says that. A polite request usually demands a courteous acquiescence -especially when an unrecalled ‘history’ is offered as a reference.
I nodded, but tried to indicate by my expression that I was only doing it to be –what?- polite. My forehead, I’m sure, made my point.
She noticed, and a tiny smile escaped, ran across her lips, and disappeared on the other side. I could see her amending her question on the fly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just that you look so much the same as I remember from that first time… It’s uncanny, really.” She leashed her eyes for a moment to study my reaction. I could feel them trying to peel information off my face as they sat, hooded and dangerous on the edge of her thoughts. “I’ve been trying to figure out what it is.”
“Probably the scrubs I always wear,” I said, trying to be funny I suppose.
She shook her head and tried out another smile. “No… I don’t think so.”
Something about the varying texture of her smiles and how they each pulled differently at her eyes, caught my attention and a memory –a shadow, really- flitted like a ghost just out of reach.
A new smile, thin and toothless –an unasked question smile- appeared like a figure glimpsed through a thick gauze curtain, only to disappear again before adequate identification. She was beginning to unnerve me. But suddenly, like opening a gate, everything rushed out.
She took a deep breath and straightened herself on the chair as if she were about to answer a question in class. “I… I asked to see you for a reason, doctor. The pap smear was just an excuse…” She looked past me to stare out the window for a moment, obviously uncomfortable. Embarrassed.
“My midwife sent me to you for an urgent consultation twenty-two years ago. It was my first pregnancy and I wanted so much for everything to go smoothly –you know, home delivery, no pain killers… Anyway, one day Maryanne told me I had to see a specialist. I wanted to see a female, but for some reason I ended up with you.” She glanced at me to see how I was reacting, and then, reassured, continued. “I remember you were very nice, but you said there was not enough fluid around the baby and that it wasn’t growing so you wanted to induce labour right away. You asked me if I had any questions, but I was only thirty-two weeks along in my pregnancy then so I panicked and ran out of the office. I phoned the midwife and she assured me you had a great reputation but I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t. I was sure you were a fake, so I drove back to Surrey where I used to live. I wanted to think it over. But that night I went into premature labour and they had to deliver Melissa there by Caesarian section.
“She was quite sick when she was born –she spent more than two weeks in their nursery,” she said, wringing her hands as if it had all happened yesterday. “And you know, for some reason I blamed you. Like, if you’d decided my midwife was wrong, everything would have been okay…” She sighed and wiped away a tear. “Weird, eh? Hormones, I guess, because then they had to hospitalize me for depression. I was so paranoid I couldn’t think straight for months…”
She took a deep breath and another, different, expression surfaced. “Have you read any Oscar Wilde, doctor?” She asked, her eyes suddenly cold.
I nodded –but carefully. I had the uncomfortable feeling I was being led into a trap. “The Portrait of Dorian Gray?” she asked, her voice now soft and apologetic.
I steeled myself. It was the story of a hedonistic and dissolute man who remains handsome and young while his portrait –stored in the attic- ages and reveals all the evil he has committed.
“At the time, I thought of you as Dorian Gray,” she said, now inspecting her hands tightly kneading her lap. “All show, pretending to be kind, but all the while not caring what I really wanted… Really needed.” She shook her head slowly –maybe she did that when I saw her that time so very long ago. I don’t remember. “I apparently phoned all my friends and told them to stay away from your office… I hated you when I was sick… I tried to spread rumors…”
Well, at least it was Dorian Gray and not Jekyll and Hyde she’d read… Small comfort, I suppose.
Suddenly she sat up and leaned across the desk to grasp my hand. “But it was my portrait that was up in the attic, wasn’t it? It was me all along that was the fake.
“You know I’ve waited all these years to tell you about it -to apologize… but I was afraid.”
I squeezed her hand as a tangible acceptance of her apology and sat back trying to think of something to say to diffuse the mood. “And Melissa? How’s she doing now?”
Yet another smile surfaced briefly, changed its mind for a moment, and then re-emerged as a gigantic grin. “You delivered her baby a couple of years ago, doctor. I was sitting in the far corner of the delivery room in the shadows for most of it, afraid you’d recognize me. I remember you kept looking over at me –wondering why I wasn’t standing beside my daughter. I didn’t quite know what to do. I kept trying to smile, but I was so ashamed, the smile kept disappearing…” She looked at me quizzically for a moment. “Did you recognize me?” Her face knotted up. “I have to know…”
It was my turn to smile this time. “No…” I said slowly, unable to suppress a blush at my failing memory. I hope that made her feel a little better. And yet, although I hadn’t recognized her then, I realized what had puzzled me about her today: she was wearing the face of a woman I’d come to know quite well; she was her daughter but through a glass darkly… “The time is out of joint- O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” said Hamlet. It felt like that…