The following story was written by Miriam Spiegel Raskin and shared as part of the Memory Project.
I thought I was familiar with the degradations that even short hospital visits can inflict, so, when my doctor recently ordered a stress test for me at the hospital lab, I walked in with a certain devil-may-care attitude that was meant to pass for medical sophistication and answered, over and over, the usual questions about my age, address, marital status, medical history, insurance history, my mother’s medical history, my father’s medical history, and the nature of the symptoms I was presenting for analysis, most of which information was already, or should have been, in the hospital computers. Having passed those tests, I was directed to sit in a chair outside the radiology lab, smack dab in a hallway traversed by snappily dressed doctors and patients en route to other areas, while I was graced only with one of those cleverly abbreviated hospital gowns, half open in the back, that hospitals use to instill low self-esteem in patients who might otherwise insist on their rights.
Sitting there and waiting meekly for further humiliations, I got one I was not expecting. The technician took me by surprise. He was young, good looking, affable and extremely considerate of my psychic and physical comfort. While he was checking my blood pressure, he cocked his head to one side and said, thoughtfully, “You look like you might be a professor. Are you?”
“No,” I said, laughing, but feeling the sudden torrent of ice water flood my heart with the shock of having to admit once more that I had failed to fulfill the high expectations I and others had of me. I hate to confront this fact. I keep myself serene by pretending it does not matter.
“No,” I said and could think of nothing to add to identify myself to a perfect stranger.
“So what are you then?” he insisted.
“I am nothing,” I said, awkwardly, having to say something but failing to come up with a saving phrase. My instinct is always for the truth, but even I recognized that this unthinking response had gone too far. I didn’t mean to sound so self-deprecating nor to make this very nice person feel guilty for embarrassing me. But what could I have said? How could I explain, in ten words or less, that I still have not found my niche in the world? Should I admit that I have done a lot of things over a lot of years and still don’t know the answer to that simple question? What am I? A writer who does not write? A teacher who doesn’t teach? A housewife that does not keep house? What? A reader? A mom? A grandmother? A volunteer? A do-gooder? A thinker? Or just somebody too smart to be nothing, but nothing nonetheless?
Not many months ago, my friend the poet said to me in a hushed and very caring tone, she not meaning for one instant to do what she did, “You know, I am kind of surprised. Of all the people I know, I always thought you would amount to something.” I cringed but revealed nothing. Why should that hurt me? She is my friend. She had expectations that I did not fulfill. She did not tell me anything I did not know. Would it have helped if she had lied to me, told me how much I have accomplished? No, I would have hated it. So why this dagger in my heart? Isn’t my instinct for the truth? Yes, speaking it, not necessarily hearing it, from someone else’s mouth.
I don’t want to dwell on all the reasons I have not done more. I don’t even want to think about them, the real and imaginary obstacles to self-fulfillment. I don’t want to yield to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies to find fault with myself, to analyze the deficits that keep me from meaningful accomplishment. But not thinking about them does not move me along. I am stuck in place, the same place where I have been stuck ever since my youngest went off to college. Or was it kindergarten? I see him now, in my mind’s powerful freeze frame, walking up the hill on that first day of school, cheerfully going off, his buddy at his side, to conquer new fields, while I stand weeping at the picture window, wondering what to do with the rest of my life. There was nothing left to do.
What has deterred me from finding the answer I simply don’t know. It is not lack of interest or energy or desire. Decades have passed and I am still running ceaselessly in place, aiming towards an undefined goal, hoping someday to know what I want to be, need to be, doing. But even as I joke that at my now advanced age that I am still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up, I know that I have no one to blame but myself for my ignominy. I could have done more, could have made a decision, could have made my ambitions a primary goal. I could have gone to law school. How many years is it since I scored so well on the LSAT? Why didn’t I do it? Why don’t I?
Because it is too costly an indulgence. Because it is too late. Because I am too old. Because I am too lazy. Or because I know too much, knowing full well that, having once bitten into the rotten fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, nothing I can ever do matters in the mysterious scheme of things human.
All right. So I keep stumbling over the same old stumbling block. So what?