Saturday, June 12, 2010


Dark, damp, thundery. The basement cul de sac of litter boxes and laundering machines is cooler than the upstairs house, and darker by dint of the U-shaped light bulbs, temperamental as prima donnas, that, more often than not, decline to ignite. The smell of detergent -- a specific type, bought in unaccustomed bulk just for its blue, sharp, soapy non-floral fragrance -- recalls my Bubbi's basement of deep stone sinks and bottles of bluing. The cul de sac is a refuge for Manny, our gentle, placid, phlegmatic Maine Coonische cat, during thunderstorms. As my Bubbi's basement was for her gentle, placid and phlegmatic husband, who would retreat to his rocker, back to the high window, and wait out the storm with a beer.

That deep little corner of the house, redolent of soap and cat piss, and shadowy as a dream, draws me in. The redolent spaces of memory are a refuge. They cast a sweet caul of darkness forward and gather me in. Or perhaps it's no so much a caul as a pall, a garment of some fear and trembling, but nonetheless a suitable and comforting shelter.

In the same manner, a childhood day returns in a mouthful of ice: deep, damp cold at the back of the nose, and suddenly I am standing, age 7 or 8, in the twilight of a winter day in a slushy street in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I have been sledding; I am cold, despite my child-immobilizing snowsuit, and yet I am reluctant to go inside. I am alone, some distance from my house, standing there in the street. I am staring into the gathering shadows as if trying to call myself home from half a century's distance. I furiously chew more ice, trying to preserve the contact; like Andersen's Little Match Girl, I am desperate to prolong my vision of hearth and safety. It was twilight, winter and cold, but half a block away was the snug little house to which I would return -- and through which, even to this day, I can imagine myself walking, room to room, conjuring the least detail: the cold of the basement floor, the rough texture of the couch, the spots on the bathroom tile, the corners of unstuck wallpaper.

Eventually, the Little Match Girl runs out of matches, and I ran out of ice. I woke to my own harsh reality: a crowded CME conference in an overly air-conditioned hotel ballroom, a speaker droning on about thrombophilias, heavily algorithmed powerpoint slides zipping past, a knot in my right thigh, an overly-cologned colleague to my left, and an over-full bladder from all the ice water I'd been guzzling to quell the nasty cough that had been precluding sleep for the past few nights. Life, as Buddha said, is suffering, a whole spectrum of suffering from little miseries to devastating afflictions, and the source of suffering is desire and attachment.

I had been trying to clutch a phantom, a dream, in a mouthful of ice; the ice melted, the ghost child faded away, the uncomfortable, coughing woman returned -- no less, despite the arguments of gravity and phlegm, a phantom than the child. I looked around the room and saw a fabulous array of doctors of every sort, from young hotshots cramming for the boards, to retired greybeards there out of an unconditional love of learning medicine.

And me ? I was starting to cram for what I'd come to realize would be my last standardized test, the internal medicine board exam that, if I pass it, will extend my board certification from 2014 to 2024.

My last standardized test. Now there's a good news/bad news proposition. I am undeniably in the time of life where everything reminds me of the inevitability of death. Those who know me will insist that I've been in that mindset since the age of 13, but this is different. I am fading, attenuating, becoming translucent. My skin is drying out and wrinkling up, my hair is like crinkly gray straw. People -- young people -- are starting to look right through me as if I were not there. Or, even worse, to look at me with that edge of infantilizing condescension and mild pity reserved for the old. Maybe I am more attuned to that nuance by having been in medicine all these years, constant witness to things like the 90 year old professor emeritus being called "cute," or the presumption of first-name-basis with or without treacly terms of endearment being taken at the first glimpse of gray hair and wrinkles.

Driving home a few weeks ago, I spotted a clutch of boys playing ball in a parking lot. I smiled at their exuberance and joyfulness. And suddenly I realized how much newer the world is for them, how unjaded they are, how unformed. How their world is different from my world. How my world is not the world of the eight year old in the snowy street in 1960, as much as it might contain that world. And my world is not the world of the 20 year old student, the 30 year old parent, the forty year old executive, and I should not be surprised when, in their gaze, I am given back to myself as alien, negligible, pathetic. It's hard to concede, "Yes, it's your turn, now," and not simultaneously feel as if I'm being crowded off the edge of the dock.

The Episcopal burial service contains the magnificent words, All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. This is the climactic cadence that begins at Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, rises through humbly I adore thee, verity unseen, and returns to the one, the tonic, the dying fall of clods on coffin.

And, as wondrous and brave as that song is, and as inseparable as it is from the message of love and community at the heart of Christianity, it is a song that cries out for a cadenza -- the queer, contradictory song of the solitary self being dismantled and given back to that from which it has never left.

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