A long-time patient asked me the other day whether he should call me “Doctor K.” or “Commissioner K.” moving forward from January’s swearing in ceremony.
I answered that he would be doing both of us a huge favor by simply calling me “Al”. (No Paul Simon allusions, please.) In reply he quipped, “Sure thing Dr. K!” as he shuffled down the hallway.
Later that same day I took a call from one of my cousins who began, “Hey, Junior, do you have a few minutes to talk about…?”
“Junior”, now there’s one from way back. I spent the first 10 or 12 years of my life going by that name. It never bothered me to go by such a subordinate moniker, perhaps it should have, I’ve never given it much thought. Nonetheless, at the beginning of middle school my mom suggested I might want to upgrade to something a bit more adult. So, giving the matter due consideration, I shortened “Alfred” to “Al” and thus during first period’s roll call on the first day of seventh grade the grand switch occurred. (My algebra teacher, the rubber chicken throwing Mr. Schleister, had a field day with this incidentally, calling all 5’3” and 115 lb. of me “Big Al” all throughout Junior High.)
No fanfare accompanied the transition but it did create a slight but meaningful personal schism- from that day on, two distinct sets of people existed in my universe, those who call me “Junior” and those who call me “Al”. I love both groups, but the “Juniors” hold a special place in my heart as time has culled that herd; as age has painted my childhood with saccharine nostalgia. And I must also face this truth- while some of the “Al’s” go back decades with me, it is the “Juniors” who know me to my core. As Schleister’s historical “Big Al” might state, “They know where the skeletons are buried.”
I could go on about the numerous other titles and sobriquets, honorable and ignoble alike, I’ve picked up along the way but I will not. Suffice it to say that over time, many of us grow into our names, or meld with them to the point where name and person, title and being become inseparable from one another. We form a view of someone and from that point on, regardless of their or our passage, we hold to that construct.
This is not an immutable law, there is a little room for wiggle, but by and large I have found it to be true — Dave the successful plumber is a reputable man, but he’s still the kid who threw up after that football practice in the summer of 1978. Carol is an accomplished attorney and mother of three, but she remains the girl who cried for home on the Washington D.C. field trip in 1981.
First, or at least early impressions, are hard to shake.
Case in point:
For five summers after high school and through college I was a lifeguard at our local Country Club. The days were mixtures of monotony and play, heat and cool immersion, visual deserts and oases, isolation and comradery; all at minimum wage. It remains the best job I ever had.
Over those successive summers I made numerous friends and acquaintances, many of which are dear to me to this day; multiple connections which influenced my life then and now began amongst the slippery pool decks, the snow cones, and the shrill “THWEEETS!!” of the lifeguards’ whistles.
My first summer there I recall seeing a man on rare occasion who would stand over the pool fence toward evening, after his round of golf had ended. At some 6’3 or so he would tower over the fence to watch his children at play. How they lit up and performed when they caught his eye! But I think he enjoyed the moment or two before they noticed him more.
He would gather his crew up for supper at home. I believe he acknowledged me once with a nod of his head that year.
He carried himself with a humble nobility which simultaneously impressed and inspired. I would see him about the community, at church and made note of how to emulate his bearing- but at 5’7” I doubted I would ever inspire such confidence in others as did he.
The next summer he would more frequently join his children in the pool after golfing. Sometimes they would stay a bit beyond the official closing time and on those occasions he would spot me a tip for my “trouble” which was really no bother at all.
Through the third and fourth summers we got to know one another a little better, or at least I would call him Mr. Johnson (not his real name) and he would call me “the lifeguard” (lower cases intended with good natured). On evenings when he did not join his family in the pool, he began pulling up a chair next to me and we’d bide the time together.
At length, I learned of his profession and how he had carved out a successful niche in the insurance industry. Unknowingly, he also provided guidance on what it meant to be a true family man.
Towards the end of my final summer at the pool a brief pop-up shower drove everyone to seek shelter. I found myself on a bench with Mr. Johnson. His oldest son was an upperclassman in high school now and he confided in me the briefest of a personal concern he had about his parenting skills- a doubt I did my best to quickly assuage. The rain cleared just as fast. He arose and thanking me said, “Best of luck in medical school, ‘Big Al’.”
More than a decade later Mr. Johnson became a patient of mine. Over the years we got to know each other better, but we always maintained a rather formal relationship. I think for him, time was money and for my part I still held him in such distant esteem that I would never be the one to breech propriety. As such, his appointments always ended with a perfunctory “Thank you Dr. Knable,” and a “My pleasure, Mr. Johnson.”
The years proved both kind and cruel to my unknowing mentor. For the most part he, his wife and family prospered and thrived but on subsequent appointments it became gradually apparent that he was suffering from early cognitive issues. Progressive dementia made appointments harder for him. Where he once might have scoffed at the thought of assistance, he now leaned figuratively and eventually literally upon his wife. Then, there were no more office visits. At length there was no more church.
A year or so after his last visit to the office, his wife called to ask a favor. Mr. Johnson had a worrisome spot on his face that was causing him discomfort and would it be asking too much for me to drop by their house to take a look. House calls are rare these days but I grabbed my bag and arrived at the arranged hour.
I had not been to his home before but knew of it as it is a grand old place. Mrs. Johnson and one of her sons met me at the door and guided me to Mr. Johnson awaiting me in a wheelchair in his study. The months since I had last seen him had taken their toll. He had lost perhaps 30 pounds from his prime but there in a sweat suit and slippers he was still a formidable presence.
“This is Dr. Knable, remember him? He’s here to help with that spot on your cheek!” was repeated over and over but there as his eyes met mine there was no recognition, none at all.
I went about my work. With his family’s help he was docile as a lamb as I injected his cheek with some lidocaine, removed the offending growth, cauterized and bandaged the area.
“Thank Dr. Knable now!” his son said as I stood to depart. As my eyes rose to a level to meet Mr. Johnson’s there was initially a dull glaze but then they locked upon me with a kindled interest.
He looked me up and over, his nostrils flared ever so slightly, his pupils narrowed then sparked, and in a moment of lucidity he exclaimed, “He’s no doctor! He’s the ***damned lifeguard!” The proclamation was echoed by the left corner of his mouth rippling into a hint of a hemi-curled grin.
In that moment he was the scion of old once more, the lion in his den and we all shared a genuine laugh.
A man much wiser than I am once said, “A prophet isn’t accepted in his hometown.” His way, perhaps of imploring us to see one another from time to time with new eyes, to allow for the possibility of positive, or perhaps even negative change, substantive growth.
But is so very difficult to do this.
“I used to change your diapers!”—“You were so good looking, I was afraid to ask you out.”—“I was never one of the cool kids like you…”—all get in the way.
For better or worse, we are forever consigned to see people- and be seen by them- as when we first made acquaintance, all the while missing out on who we’ve become along the way.
So, call me what you will. I take no umbrage, for I am certainly no prophet.
I remain the lifeguard (lower cases, intended with humility).
“Al”. Or “Junior”, if it pleases you.