Sunday, January 20, 2013

`I Could Scarce Trust Myself With Myself'

The doctor, a formal gentleman, son of a surgeon in Pakistan, wearing pressed charcoal-gray trousers and matching vest with a tightly knotted tie the color of lapis lazuli, asked, holding a stethoscope against my back, “And when, sir, do you plan to retire?” Perhaps he asked because he had noticed my age in the file – recently sixty. Perhaps because his father, he had already told me, is still making rounds in his seventies. I judge my new cardiologist to be a man in his mid-forties, with a smoothly youthful face that contrasts with his military bearing. Amiable but formal, a man steadfastly conscious of his status as a physician and mine as a patient, but without arrogance. 

No one had ever inquired after my retirement plans, and I’ve given them little thought. I remember men of my father’s generation talking about Florida or Arizona as though they were the Promised Land, milk and honey after decades in the desert of Forty-Hours-a-Week. I’ve had lousy jobs but never pined after a life of beer and fishing. I enjoy the scaffolding a job provides, the regularity, camaraderie and purpose, the opportunity it gives me to meet smart people. No job is my life but a jobless life seems a little dreary. I’ve free-lanced, and it’s not for me. I told the doctor I had no retirement plans and he smiled: “Excellent. I share your feelings. It will keep you alive. I cannot imagine a life of leisure.” His comportment suggested as much. He seemed to enjoy the minutiae of my case (more than I, in fact), and found pleasure in our conversation. He was gratified when I asked about Pakistan. He spoke of his homeland with the doleful reverence of a jilted lover. He said: “My country has a gift for suffering.” 

I suggested he read Charles Lamb’s “The Superannuated Man” in Last Essays of Elia. He had me write down the title. In it, Lamb describes his retirement after thirty-three years from the Accountant’s Department of the East India Company:
 
“For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only apprehend my felicity; I was too confused to taste it sincerely. I wandered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not. I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a forty years' confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It was like passing out of Time into Eternity -- for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself.”

2 comments:

Gary in Nairobi, Kenya said...

This is a good example of your mission of showing where life meets literature. Thanks!

ghostofelberry said...

Apparently, most GPs (family doctors) in England die within a few years of retirement. This is why the pensions can remain high. My father retired from Medicine about 15 years ago, when he contracted ME. He now spends all his time reading and concocting bizarre herbal remedies and curries.