Doth the lady protest too much?

I am neither a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, and apart from a career in medicine, hold no official accreditation in counselling. Heaven only knows, my own Black Dog is never far away, and anxiety gathers little dust as it waits expectantly in a brightly lit corner of my closet. And yet I am still a sounding board in my retirement, it seems.

A colleague from my student days somehow recognized me in a prairie coffee shop, three days drive from my coastal home. I’ve never been good at faces, but sometimes a voice will riffle through the fading file cards in my head and find a memory lightly pencilled in.

I was sitting in a dark and unobtrusive corner of a Starbuck’s near the university in Saskatoon when a voice caught my attention. It was talking quietly on a phone, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed, except that it was at the next table and its owner spilled coffee on me during a nervous laugh.

“I’ll call you back,” she whispered into her phone and quickly grabbed the few napkins in which she had dressed her cookie. “I’m so sorry,” she said, greeting me more with her hands than her voice, as she attempted to wipe the coffee off my tee shirt.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, taking the napkins from her hands and finishing the wipe myself. “Stuff happens…”

She sat back suddenly and fastened her eyes on my face like ocular nappies. “Don’t I…”

But her name came to me first. “Susan?”

She nodded enthusiastically, still not sure of herself. Then, as I was about to remind her of my name, “G…?” she said, and touched my arm excitedly.

I nodded, surprised, but impressed that she’d remembered my nickname from medical school. I have to admit that mine was the easier task, though -Susan, the valedictorian of my graduating class, had made a name for herself in oncology, and most doctors, no matter their specialties, would probably have read at least a few of her papers. I certainly had.

We joined our tables and sat reminiscing. There was a lot of ground to cover -I had recently retired after 40 years in practice, but she still seemed to be in the thick of things.

“I’m just having a quick coffee before I have to chair a conference at the U,” she said, checking her watch. “But I still have a few minutes,” she added, and smiled reassuringly. “What have you been doing since we last met?”

I knew she’d ask, but I hesitated before replying. My career had been a satisfying one, for sure, but certainly not as illustrious as hers. “I specialized in Ob/Gyne,” I said with a little shrug. “In Vancouver, actually, “ I added, knowing she would wonder what I was doing in a Saskatoon coffee shop. So when one of her eyebrows posed the silent question, I was quick to respond. “I’m retired now, and since I was born near here, I thought I’d do a little catching up.”

“Vancouver?” She said the word with a wistful look in her eyes. “I gave a presentation out there last year, G… I’ve always loved the west coast.” She sighed and rested her eyes on me again. “I’ve often wished I’d settled out there rather than in Toronto, you know…”

“There are probably more opportunities in Toronto.” I said. “I mean, it’s the center of the universe, and everything…” I meant it as a joke, really -the quintessentially Canadian retort whenever the city is mentioned- but it had a chilling effect on her and she shrugged apologetically.

“If I were still in practice, I’d likely be picking your brains at this stage, Susan,” I said, suddenly ashamed of my thoughtless remark.

She smiled, but still apologetically, and she sat for a while, quietly nibbling on her cookie. Suddenly I could feel her eyes resting on me again. “Was there ever a time in your career when you felt like an imposter?”

I thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Sometimes when I was trying to justify a diagnosis, or a procedure, to the young resident doctors… Especially when they’d tell me that my colleagues did things differently.”

She took a deep breath and a little smile surfaced briefly on her lips. “I feel it more and more as I get older.” She concentrated on her cookie for a few bites. “It’s like I’m supposed to be the expert, but things move so rapidly in my field it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep up -and I’m always afraid that one day, someone is going to put up their hand at a lecture and point out that I’m not current anymore.”

I stared at my rapidly cooling coffee and nodded. That -plus age, of course- played a large role in my decision to retire.

“My psychologist partner calls it my ‘imposter syndrome’ and laughs at me,” she said, shaking her head. “He doesn’t take it very seriously -I suppose that’s why I unloaded it on you… Sometimes I just need to talk about it with someone.”

“The welcome stranger…?” I rolled my eyes to show I was kidding.

She smiled half-heartedly, but I could tell she wasn’t finished yet.

“After all these years, I wonder if the mask still fits,” she said, more to the cookie than to me. “That’s what reputation is, you know: a mask.” She finished off the cookie and sat back in her chair. “You work for years to achieve it, all the while wondering if it is starting to fray -if it still conceals the face underneath.” She chuckled, then scraped her chair back from the table. “I often think I should get out while it’s still intact. While it’s still worth something… Like a hockey player retiring after his team wins the Stanley Cup.”

She checked her watch and stood up, but as she stooped to pick up a rather heavy looking briefcase, her eyes interrogated me once again. “I have to leave for Toronto right after the conference this afternoon, but were you planning to attend? Lunch is provided. Maybe we could meet?”

I smiled warmly at her suggestion, but shook my head. I’m retired now; I no longer carry a mask. “But if you’re ever in Vancouver again…” And yet, even as I spoke, I could sense a change as she rummaged around in her head for an appropriate Saskatoon conference persona.

She nodded, hugged me briefly, and hurried out the door. But I could see her pulling her disguise back on as she left.

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Death, Thou shalt Die

Just when you think that Age has afforded you a full panoply of experience, another one comes along that you are forced to fit into the bookcase. It may be sufficiently unique as to require an entirely new shelf, but more likely, it will be something so obvious that you’re embarrassed you hadn’t thought of it before, and can squeeze it in beside another thing you’ve already read.

The internet does stuff like that -to me anyway. Permutations and combinations of issues I had always believed were immutably fixed in time and space unravel at warp speed making me question the wisdom of any assumptions it was thought safe to trust when I was growing up.

Like Death, for example. It used to be that after someone died, all that remained were memories, and perhaps a few of their possessions. ‘Dead and gone’ was a relatively intuitive reality in those days; ‘Dead and present’ was an oxymoron. Now, most of us have digital feet that continue to walk the screen no matter our corporeal substance. And, apart from the nuisance algorithms that track me from app to app, I had not given those footfalls much thought -until, that is, I came across an article in the Conversation on digital grieving by Jo Bell, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull: https://theconversation.com/how-the-internet-is-changing-the-way-we-grieve-100134

She writes that ‘These days the dead are now forever present online and digital encounters with someone who has passed away are becoming a common experience. […] Each one of us has a digital footprint – the accumulation of our online activity that chronicles a life lived online through blogs, pictures, games, web sites, networks, shared stories and experiences. When a person dies, their “virtual selves” remain out there for people to see and interact with. These virtual selves exist in the same online spaces that many people use every day.’

When I first thought about this -the idea of inadvertently coming across someone, or something from whoever had died- I worried about the effect, and how I would react. But, as the author reports, ‘Yet for some, these spaces have become a valuable tool – especially so for the bereaved. An emerging body of research is now looking at the ways the internet, including social media and memorial websites, are enabling new ways of grieving – that transcend traditional notions of “letting go” and “moving on”.’

I was, of course, aware of the concept and probable value of memorials, but I have to confess that I hadn’t thought of them in terms of lasting online tributes. To be sure, I was weaned in another epoch when, apart from an obituary notice in the local paper, or flowers on a tombstone, there were precious few options to show that you remembered someone. But, of course, people today use the modalities they are used to.

Suicide is a devastating act, not only for the victim, but especially for those who are left behind. It makes sense that the friends would need to process the act as best they could. ‘For many mourners, the most important motivating factor seems to be the need to stay connected to the deceased and to “keep them alive”. And keeping a Facebook page going by actively maintaining the “in life” profile of the deceased, or creating a new “in memorial” profile, allows users to send private or public messages to the deceased and to publicly express their grief. […] The use of social media in this way goes some way towards answering the question of where to put one’s feelings – such as love, grief, guilt – after a death. And many people turn to the same sites to promote awareness raising and fund raising for various charities in memory of their loved ones.’

‘Unlike sentimental objects, social media pages and online spaces allow people to explore grief with others from the comfort of their own home. Talking to people online can also help to free up some of the inhibitions that are otherwise felt when talking about loss – it enables forms of uncensored self-expression that are not comparable with face-to-face conversations.’ Indeed, as they evolve, perhaps ‘online memorial sites and social networking spaces help the bereaved to see how events in the past can continue to have value and meaning in the present and the future.’

I was sitting in a dark corner of my usual Starbucks a few weeks ago thinking more of shadows than of death, when a couple of middle aged women sat down at the next table. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid them much heed, but one of them, a rather buxom lady was wearing a loose white turtle neck sweater that kept snagging one of her hoop earrings. Still waiting for my sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich to cool, I have to admit I was searching for a divertissement, and her ear seemed as good as any.

‘I visited Krissy again today, Helen,” she said matter-of-factly to her similarly attired and equally Rubenesque friend.

Helen looked up from her still steaming espresso macchiato “That’s nice, dear. Anything new?”

Her friend shrugged and cuddled her cinnamon dolce latte in two serviettes folded to dissipate the heat, I suppose. “Well, a few others must have visited her earlier, because I saw some collars, and a milk bone…”

Helen nodded, but she sat back a little in her chair and left the macchiato to cool in front of her. I could see her staring at her friend, even in the dim light. “Julie, it’s been, what, two months since…”

“Seventy-eight days,” Julie interrupted her with an intensity that made me wonder if her latte had just burned through the napkins.

Helen nodded sympathetically and reached over the table to stroke Julie’s free hand. “I know dear… but…”

“But Krissy loves the attention, don’t you think?” Julie sighed at the thought.

“Loved, Julie. Loved…” Helen corrected her gently, and I could see her begin to stroke her friend’s wrist.

Julie’s face suddenly winced as her earring grappled with her sweater once again.

Helen seemed to think it was more than a simple entanglement. “There comes a time when you have to let her pass, dear,” she said, and squeezed Julie’s hand before letting it go.

“You mean take it down, don’t you…?” There was a look of desperation in Julie’s eyes, although in the shadows it was difficult to be sure. “But people are still leaving bones…” She was almost pleading now.

Helen smiled and reached across the table again, but Julie was already standing up.

“I… I need some air, Helen,” she said stiffly and began to walk away.

Helen shook her head slowly, gulped down her macchiato, and rose to follow her out of the door.

My breakfast sandwich seemed pleasantly warm in the sudden silence, so I took an experimental bite and sat back in my chair to enjoy it. For some things, I realized as I chewed contentedly, memory is enough. I felt no need to Facebook the disappearing sausage and egg…