There’s a line in a song by a quirky band called They Might be Giants that goes, “I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed.” I used to think that this lyric was nothing more than droll commentary on the limitations of our anatomy. It recently occurred to me that this line, like most pieces of fine art, is precious for its metaphorical quality.
There’s another line in a song by the Scottish rock band Big Country that goes, “I never took the smile away from anybody’s face.” I love this line and I hate it. I love it because it reminds me of my best friend from high school – Dan. We heard the song for the first time together on one of our many road trips. I don’t remember if we were driving to Squaw Valley in the middle of the night on a whim through a blizzard, intent on getting first tracks, or if we were heading up to UC Davis to see his older brother and imagine what it would be like when we were college roommates. What I remember every time I hear this line is that there are people like that; people who bring light to every room and love to every relationship. Dan is one of those guys. I hate it because am not.
Dan is charming but not verbose. He is funny but not cynical. He is intelligent but not arrogant. He can proselytize without denigrating. He has empathy and insight and can reach out to welcome a stranger with a single gesture or remark, all the while elevating him to the center of attention. Women have instant crushes on him. All three of my sisters mourned the news of his engagement, and they were not alone. In high school, my group of friends looked up to Dan like he was an older, wiser brother. He moved through college effortlessly, and I was always proud to say to someone I met on campus,
“Oh, you know Dan? Yeah, we’re like best friends.” I was not alone.
You know someone like that if you know Pablo from the O.R. Pablo is the hardest working person in our rural hospital. He used to be the charge nurse at night, when things can get pretty crazy. Babies need delivering, bones need fixing, and appendices need removing. Pablo carried this special phone around with him that anyone and everyone calls. I call it when I am lying on the couch at home – waiting for a case to start – to ask for an E.T.A. Everyone calls it for any number of reasons. It rings all the time. If I carried this phone, I would have broken it a long time ago and before that I would have subtly discouraged its use with my trademark telephone greeting: “Yeah?” But Pablo answered it the same way every time. In his pleasantly soothing Latin accent he would say,
“Hello, this is Pablo.”
Every time I heard that greeting I was awestruck. He calmly answered the phone while prepping a leg with one hand and helping the anesthesiologist start an IV with the other. That doesn’t leave a lot of hands. When I saw it happen, I thought of those two songs. I would think,
“Man, I have never seen Pablo take the smile away from anybody’s face. Why can’t I be more like that?” Then, pondering the They Might be Giants song, I would think,
“If Pablo were to look in the mirror right now, he would witness himself demonstrating what I too often fail to affect, and what I know I am capable of: simple kindness amidst chaos where irritability lurks.”
Pablo is a great guy, but then, so are most of us. The only difference is Pablo doesn’t have his eyes closed when he looks in the mirror. That’s why he looks so damn good all the time.
There are things we always have known about ourselves: the demographics (height, weight, and address), our likes and dislikes, and our limitations. Then there are things we learn about as we go, like how our voice sounds to everyone else when we first hear a recording of it. (Yikes! I sound like that?) Some of us are remedial though, and late to learn things. Some of us slip by the mirror in darkness, the lights off and our eyes shut tight. If we’re lucky, we have people who care enough about us to flip on the switch.
I think I’ll start carrying a mirror around with me. I mean carry it metaphorically of course; I would only lose it and end up throwing a tantrum or it would break and someone would cut their hand on the shards giving me more work to do. I think I’ll try to carry this mirror, open my eyes, and check myself in it the way Pablo does. Then, maybe, I’ll look a little better.
Thomas McDonald, MD