Can a Phoenix disguise his ashes?

I thought that when I retired I would be free of all of this. I assumed that once I took off my work clothes, nobody would know. That I would fade, like the howl of a faraway wolf, so I could watch the world from behind a tree of my choosing. But I suppose that some roles are just too adhesive -they cling like that bit of price tag I couldn’t get off the gift I wanted to pretend was really expensive. Only I’m not expensive -not any more. And yet, a Phoenix can never really sleep -somebody is bound to find the ashes…

Still, I try to dissolve into the background; I was never really comfortable as an expert -or at least, that’s the way it seems to me now. Perhaps that’s because context is everything. Take a pilot out of an airplane, and some of the sheen disappears -without the need for that skill on the street, he becomes ordinary. Normal. Unquestioned about altitude or seatbelt matters, at any rate. I thought it would be the same for me.

OR scrubs give  your job away immediately don’t they? But, even when I was younger and hubris-ridden, I rarely wore them to parties. Okay, I sometimes wore the shirt to barbeques, but that was in the summer, and only when it was really humid. Otherwise I was in camouflage and only my smug expression, the  hauteur that so many of us wear, was showing. I don’t think I really meant to show it, but, like that price tag, it was hard to remove. It’s what we were taught in Medical School -part of the Oath.

And yet, as soon as I retired, it disappeared. Like magic, I was standard stock again: no longer a frenzied obstetrician getting called at all hours; no longer a preoccupied gynaecologist, fretting about the OR schedule. The burden of proof, or whatever, dropped like a discarded tissue, and I felt free to assume another identity. An unobtrusive, observer identity. A regular-person-at-a-dinner-party identity.

Every so often, however, someone discovers ashes, stirs them unnecessarily, and like Clark Kent I am forced to come out of the phone booth in a new suit. I used to like that; I’m uncomfortable with it now. But, of course, I am also uncomfortable with the usual preamble at dinner parties -you know, the part where everybody walks around with a drink trying to think of something to say to the other guests. Trying to remember their names from the last party. Trying to fill the time until the hosts actually serve the food.

I remember wandering into a conversation at one party. The couple I’d been talking to decided they had talked enough and wandered off to play with someone else. That was fine with me -I’d already forgotten her name and had resorted to calling her husband ‘him’ by then. But it left me vulnerable and standing by myself, so I pretended to be listening to the conversation going on beside me. It seemed to be about something philosophical -about meaning, actually- and my ears perked up. I’ve always been interested in finding out what things mean.

The person standing next to me, a short, balding man in a black sweater and grey flannel pants, had been holding forth about death or something, when he was interrupted by a young woman with long, curly auburn hair. She was larger, and taller than him by a head, and as she looked down at his nose, her eyes seemed to circle his bald spot like birds of prey. “But what do you mean when you say he was dead, Jonathan?”

He stepped back a little so he wouldn’t have to tilt his head upwards to meet her gaze and smiled. “I mean, his heart had stopped, Lucy. The cardiac monitor indicated that he was dead…” At this point, his smile turned wry, and he brushed the two other people standing in the group with it.

I could see her face harden as her eyes perched menacingly on his cheek. “So, Life lives only in the heart? And if it stops for a few seconds, and then restarts, the person was dead for those few seconds?”

This was getting interesting.

The sweater man only blinked, broadened his smile, and performed a remarkable microscopic head nod.

“And if it stops, but for less time, does that mean she was less dead, or simply not dead as long?”

The blink again. The man was a master. “I see where you’re trying to go with this Lucy…” Once again he brushed the group -this time with rolled eyes. “If it’s just the absence of heart activity that defines death, then is she dead between beats…?”

Lucy’s nod was more macroscopic.

“It’s more a matter of function than timing, I’m afraid. Oxygenation of tissues….”

I have to say I was impressed with his deft use of ellipses -although sometimes he seemed to use too many periods.

“A beautiful segue into what I think must be of equal, if not greater, importance, Jonathan,” Lucy said, smiling like a ready-to-pounce cat. “The brain.” With this she crossed her arms triumphantly, the motion requiring Jonathan to move back even further.

As he stepped back, he noticed that I was watching them like a TV program, and mounted a welcome smile. “Aren’t you…?” But my name obviously escaped him -if he ever knew it. I could tell he recognized something in my face, though, because I could almost hear the wheels turning.

“I’m G,” I said, using my new identity, and extending my hand.

His expression wrinkled and he managed an embarrassed shrug. “I thought somebody said you were a doctor,” he said and shook my hand rather weakly.

“My brother,” I answered, becoming increasingly enamoured with the possibilities of my new identity. I tried not to twinkle my eyes, but Lucy, obviously used to Jonathan’s minimalism, spotted the twinks immediately and grinned conspiratorially.

“Well, perhaps G has an opinion on Death,” she said -a little mischievously I thought. You’re not supposed to italicize a name unless something is going on, are you?

They all stared at me. “Death? Uhmm… Well, I try not to dwell on it if I can help it.” With their eyes sitting on my face, it was all I could think of.

“But, what do you think defines death, G? A non-functioning heart, or a non-functioning brain?”

Trapped! I was being forced to run the gauntlet of their eyes again. I searched desperately for words. “A definition requires a brain, doesn’t it?” I intended it more as a Koan -like ‘the sound of one hand clapping’, or something- but Lucy actually clapped with both of hers, so I’m not sure I was entirely successful.

“I don’t see how that helps us…” Jonathan piped up after a respectful pause to piece it together.

Lucy re-crossed her arms smugly. “He means that what defines us as living humans is the functioning of our brain, and only when it stops functioning are we no longer entitled to that assignation.”

My thinking actually hadn’t gone that far, but I let it pass. I also took it as an opportunity to look for another glass of wine, so I bowed my head politely and started to steal away. Then I heard Jonathan whispering to Lucy. “I thought he was a medical doctor…”

She shook her head like a teacher that needed to correct a slow pupil. “Too clever for that,” she said and raised her head far above his and winked at me.



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