Lately, Peter and I have FaceTimed exclusively, rather than visiting through the fence as we’d been doing. Several weeks back an employee tested positive for COVID-19 so all residents and staff had to be tested per CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicare Services) regulations. I decided against fence visits for the time being because Peter stands right against it and reaches through to hold hands. It’s breaks my heart to have to back away from him…besides, I want to hold hands too.
Peter never was one for talking on the phone, much less now using a cell phone. He fiddles constantly with whatever device he’s been handed — cell phone, laptop or tablet — so one minute I’m looking at his hand, the next, a close-up of an ear or the ceiling, always accompanied by his muttering. I try to get him to sit still and just look at me to chat. Not gonna happen.
Last week he poked at the laptop so much that he changed a setting somehow so that he could no longer see me, although I could still see him. He fumed, but I reminded him that he knows what I look like—although I’m not sure that’s always true— so it didn’t matter if he couldn’t see me. We can still hear each other, I said.
It was raining heavily that day and the downpour was all he could talk about. I tried to change his focus. “You look good today,” I told him, “but it’s time to have a beard trim, isn’t it?”
He frowned. “What are you talking about? I don’t have a beard!”
“What’s that on your face then?” I asked.
“I don’t have a beard,” he insisted.
“Feel your chin,” I said. He didn’t seem to know where his chin was. “No, move your hand up….” I tried to help by gesturing but, of course, he couldn’t see me.
It took a while before found his whisker-rimmed face. “Well I didn’t know I had that, did I?” he huffed. He was genuinely surprised.
I have to wonder who he sees when he looks in the mirror. But then, as a friend reminded me, he thinks he’s still sixty so he expects to see a younger man reflected back.
Mirror image The late Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, admitted that he’d always known he was very bad at recognizing faces. Sacks, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, wrote in “Face Blind,” (8/23/2010), “On several occasions I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself `in a mirror. He went on to say, “…I have been accused of ‘absent mindedness,’ and no doubt this is true. But I think that a significant part of what is variously called my ‘shyness,’ my ‘reclusiveness,’ my ‘social ineptitude,’ my ‘eccentricity,’ even my ‘Asperger’s syndrome,’ is a consequence and a misinterpretation of my difficulty recognizing faces
Prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. Also known as face blindness or facial agnosia. … Some people with the disorder are unable to recognize their own face.
I don’t believe Peter, who is all those things Sacks said of himself, is face blind because he does recognize me, our family, and a few others. The gray-haired, gray-bearded man in the mirror just isn’t who he expects to see.
Header photo: Even though he couldn’t see me when we talked, he enjoyed seeing himself in the corner of the screen, beard, mustache and all.
2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.