I took the shortcut via a backroad from the local college to the mental health center the other day, just for kicks. In doing so, I did a drive-by past my old private practice office. It’s a nondescript, low, one-storey brick building that now houses a primary care clinic that sees a lot of my patients for their hypertension, diabetes and chronic low back pain. As I zoomed past (hey, my new car likes to hug the curves in Sport mode), I could feel myself in that building.
I could see myself booting up the old Mac LC that held the records of my professional life in the early 1990s. I could feel and hear the little squeak of my dark maroon leather executive chair as I leaned back, crossed my legs, and took notes as I listened to a new patient tell her story. I could hear my administrative assistant answering the phone in the next room. I could feel the scratch of the gold nib of the fountain pen that I used to write my very brief notes in those idyllic days of dark inks, real paper, and color coded charts. I could see myself returning phone calls after the last patient had left at five PM, anticipating the consults that waited in the ER and the rounds on my half dozen patients on the inpatient unit in the hospital.
Now, dear readers, before you all tell me to take a dose (a very large dose, preferably by injection) of my own antipsychotic medications, hear me out. I don’t really think I’m out of touch with reality, though some of you who know me very well might disagree.
I could feel myself there in that squat, plain, brick office building because I think I left a part of myself there, all those years ago. I spent many hours in that office, pouring over schedules, reading textbook and papers, helping many people through hard times in their lives, personal and professional. I also spent hours agonizing over the suicides of patients, some mine, some those of my partners, and wondering what we, what I could have done differently. What did I miss? What did I not know that I should have known? How could I set the losses right with the next hundred, five hundred, thousand patients? All of this entered my brain at light speed as I went past my old office in my new car in my old(er) body.
This is not the only time this has happened to me, and I’ll bet my last drachma that it’s happened to you too. I’ve written in this very space about going back to the mill village of my childhood and visiting the ghosts around the central field where Christmas lights glowed, the now-empty field where football teams played and I blew trumpet at midfield, and the mound of earth that used to be the community swimming pool. Part of me is there too, just as surely as I sit in this coffee shop on this rainy day and tap tap tap these words.
Part of me still hangs out at the fishing pond that used to belong to my grandfather Jack, a beloved place of sun and heat and crickets and Catalpa worms and bream and that one humongous largemouth bass that I could never catch.
Part of me will always, and I do mean always, live on the front porch of my grandparents house, sitting in the squeaky wooden swing there, whiling away the hours as happy as any kid could ever be.
Part of me will always be sweating in the sun at the beach, any beach, but especially my beloved South Carolina coast, a magical, mystical place of marsh and blue crabs and spectacular sunsets and drinks on the dock.
When we pass through the places of our lives, do we leave parts of ourselves behind?
Do we let a little of our essence, our being, stay behind as place holder, a signpost, a guide for those who follow? Is it a physical thing, some almost invisible DNA in manifest form that becomes a forever part of that place, adding to how it is seen by others who zoom by in their own new cars?
Is it a spiritual thing, a puff of our essential smoke, our invisible but tactile self that cannot be seen by others but can be felt by those who love us, long after we leave this world?
Is it an attitude, a thought, an imprint, a bit of influence imprinted upon someone who then passes it on to someone else years later?
I would argue that it is all of these.
I would also argue that in this age of change in the world, in this time of uncertainly for so many, abuse of power and misuse of humanitarian possibility, that the essence of all of us, the good in all of us, must be left in places where it will be seen.
We must, if humankind is to not just survive but thrive in the centuries to come, leave markers to remind others that follow us what is right, what is true, what is real, what is enduring, what is truly important and what is worth preserving and passing along to the next generations.
How do we do this?
How do we leave our essence, the thing that makes us human?
We can leave money, endowments, marble edifices with our names engraved for all time. We can teach, write books, guide students in the ways that will make them successful and happy members of society. We can give our time. We can create, with words, and art and music and the things that stir men’s souls.
Yes, we can and should do all of these things.
But above all else, dear readers, we must leave these traces of ourselves, this essence of humanity and what is good in the world, everywhere we go, every day, by caring and being seen and making a difference in the world.
It is only by being passive, by not caring, by hoping to pass through this life without being noticed or leaving a trace of ourselves that we will insure just that.
A world that does not remember, does not know, and does not care.