Academic conferences are, among other things, a kind of reunion. My career has traversed a number of communities. Every place I have been, I have made friends and built relationships. We often keep distant tabs on each other, mainly through our work.
In between paper sessions and talks, the life of the conference takes place over meals, coffee, and receptions. That’s when you get to see your old friends and catch up. It was interesting to re-enter that world this past weekend after having gone through a great personal challenge.
I am not going to write about the few people who seemed to be avoiding me. I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they did not recognize me with my corkscrew curls, which only got screwier in the New Orleans humidity.
I was pleased with the grace that a number of my friends and colleagues showed me. I thought I’d catalog them here since I am often told by witnesses to the life tragedy of cancer, “I’m not sure what I should say.”
A grad school friend
We were walking together, and she stopped and turned to me. “Can I just say how sorry I am for everything you’ve been through? When I got your news, it hit me so hard. There are so many ways our lives are similar, and you are the first of my contemporaries to deal with this. I am so glad you are doing better.”
A former professor I knew mostly at a distance.
“I want you to know that I am so proud of you. I love your blog and have sent a number of friends there. What your doing is great.”
A former mentor
Meaningfully: “I am so glad to see you here.”
Friends I hardly ever see but I can really talk to
“We can talk about this if you want, but we don’t have to.”
(And they meant it 100%.)
Friends who faced their own challenges the past two years
“I am so sorry I couldn’t reach out. I was so swallowed up in my own life. But I thought about you all the time. And I’m so glad to see you.”
It’s normal to have long gaps between seeing colleagues. At one reception, someone I hadn’t seen in over five years came up to me, brightly saying, “Wow! Lani! I love your hair!” I just smiled and said thank you.
Then he looked at me intently and said, “So how’s it going? How have you been?”
I had to say that the true answer makes terrible cocktail party conversation, and then outlined briefly the chronology of events.
I felt like the wet blanket at the party.
Overall, it felt like another important transition back into my old life. I am glad to report that I was received with a warm welcome.
Tags: appearance, attitude, changes, coping, daily life, healthy people, identity loss, talking, what to say
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My chemobrain seems to be improving in most areas of my life. I can concentrate better. I recall details more accurately. I even keep some ideas in my short-term memory. Each time this happens, I notice. It’s a fist-pumping triumph.
However, I continue to struggle recalling faces. I led a seminar a few months back. A student who I have known for over a year attended. She had been out on maternity leave, so there had been some break in our contact. My brain could not put her name and face together.
It felt painfully obvious to me. When I teach, I tend to use people’s names to facilitate conversation. I had to look at her and say “you” a lot, internally distressed at not pulling up her name in my brain.
Afterwards, I checked with another student, “Was that Liz?” I was assured that it was, and I went up to Liz and explained my embarrassment at blanking on her name.
If you knew me better, you would know how completely uncharacteristic this is. At my 20th high school reunion, the organizer forgot to get name tags. I offered my Facial Recognition Services to my distressed classmates. I stood in the corner with a number of people, discreetly helping them link high school names with middle aged faces. I had nearly perfect recall of the name-face link for people I hadn’t seen in years.
So this new handicap is a big change for me. I am trying to figure it out. One strategy I’ve developed is to make a deliberate study of new faces, talking aloud their distinctive qualities and then saying the names that goes with them.
Without that, my recognition is a bit of a crapshoot.
The worst experience I’ve had so far with prosopagnosia happened a few weeks ago at the Guggenheim.
After a lovely afternoon of modern art, I went to pick up my coat and bag. There was a long line at the bag check, and I was preoccupied with the subway map. I absentmindedly handed my tag to one of the men working behind the counter, and after a minute or two, looked up again.
“Did you hand me your tag?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah. I think so.”
“Are you sure it was me?”
“I’m pretty sure,” I answered, the dreaded doubt seeping in.
As we muddled around in this confusion, the actual man I handed the tag to came forth with my bag. I looked from the first man to the second. They were both tall African American men with shaved bald heads, but their faces were quite distinct. The first had a brush mustache, and the second had thick round glasses.
“Oops,” I said, realizing my mistake. “That’s just terrible.”
The first man looked pained and answered me pointedly. “Yeah, you’re right. That is terrible.”
He took the tag of the next person in line, and I rushed off with my bag.
I felt awful knowing that our agreement about my mistake being terrible came out of different understandings of my confusion.
I was ashamed that I couldn’t see the mustache versus glasses. He assumed I was a racist.
I wished I could tell him about blanking when Liz returned from maternity leave. Or chemobrain. Or any number of embarrassing things that would ease his judgment of me.
But the moment was gone.
Tags: appearance, awkwardness, chemobrain, daily life, healthy people, survivorship
Posted in Survivorship | 9 Comments »