Not uncommonly we run into our patients outside of the workplace – in supermarkets, restaurants, and the like. When this happens, patients are usually friendly and chatter pleasantly while we frantically try to recall their names and what had brought them to our clinics. It can even be amusing, like the time my (then) 4 year old daughter and I were in the dressing room of the community swimming pool, buck naked, when the guy next to me stared at me for a bit, then exclaimed “Hey – I recognize you. You’re Bob Resta. You called us with some great news the other day. I can’t wait to tell my wife I saw you.”
Sometimes, though, these chance encounters are awkward and complicated.
It was just before Christmas in the late 1990s. We were at the airport to pick up my daughter who was returning home after having finished her first semester at college . Watching your child become a young adult and start life’s journey evokes many conflicting emotions, but after four months apart mostly you are excited to see your kid again.
In the eyes of our offspring, parents are capable of the most acutely appalling acts that are a constant threat to a teen’s cool quotient. Once we recognize this, it becomes parents’ – well, mostly fathers’ – life mission to engage in embarrassing public behaviors, in loving payback for their children’s you-are-so-geeky-old and you-are-not-related-to-me attitudes toward their hopelessly unhip elders. Lest my daughter forget what she had escaped from four months earlier, we decided to greet her at the airport wearing low-budget reindeer antlers resplendent with miniature holiday decorations.
This was a more naive time when you could still greet passengers at the gate and you weren’t confined to waiting behind the luggage carousels far from where loved ones have exited their planes. Our excitement grew when the PA announced her flight’s arrival at Gate B4, antlers perched on our heads in full kitschy splendor, grins locked on our faces in anticipation of her eye-rolling horror.
The first passengers emerged at the gate, wearing a slightly confused look as their eyes and brains adjusted from the cruelly close horizon of the seatbacks in front of them to the hustle and bustle of a busy airport. I was scanning for my daughter among the exiting passengers when the foremost one approached me. “You’re Bob Resta” she said in a flat, low tone tinged with grief at its edges. “Last Christmas you called me with the most devastating news of my life. I will never forget your voice or what you said to me.” At a loss for words, I looked at her, unable to remember anything about her. She paused for a moment, looked a little longer into my eyes, and then continued on her way.
Amid the background airport din, I could barely make out Joni Mitchell’s melancholy voice, “I wish I had a river /I could skate away on.” Shell-shock replaced my smile. One of my reindeer antlers drooped and its miniature candy cane decoration dangled helplessly. My gaze returned to the departing passengers but I lost track of why I was waiting there.