Of course, we're not here for a lecture. This gathering of parents, siblings, children, other relatives, and friends is like Class Day from our undergraduate commencement festivities, a smaller celebration before the next day's all-graduate ceremonies with the lawyers, the engineers, the MBAs, and so forth. Tonight, a class-chosen faculty speaker will bestow light words of wisdom, a classmate will offer humorous reflections on these last few years of training, there will be a few awards, and then we'll all disperse for heavy hors d'oeuvres. My sisters and I share the same alma mater; I wonder if they also feel a certain déjà vu as we wait for the proceedings to begin. But maybe the conference room setting is too different to them. Class Day, so many years ago, was an outdoor folding-chair affair that, in Almost Dr. Sis's case, took place in a downpour.
I have to laugh a little at myself, always seeking the structure of things, the bones of each new experience. Is it just my way of handling the unfamiliar? Perhaps -- the parallels underneath, analogous armatures, ground me. But it is also a way of remembering, better to secure the details. For our family, there will be no other sister who passes through this medical program or any other. One chance, then, to enjoy these moments for what they are.
The soon-to-be graduates process in, the men in suits, most of the women in dresses. Academic regalia is reserved for the next day. I have not yet seen Almost Dr. Sis since arriving -- does she see us? No time for her to look up, but we follow her with both eyes and camera lenses.
I don't snap any shots, though. The pictures I might get would be blurry, I realize -- the camera on my phone isn't the best for subjects in motion -- and I'm happier without the filter of a viewfinder limiting what I can see. I lean forward, watching my sister in a soft white frock, glossy like meringue, cross into her assigned row.
It turns out that she is in charge of presenting the class gift this evening. As she steps toward the podium, the screen behind her suddenly lights up -- the audiovisual crew working this event has zoomed in, and my sister's head, now ten feet tall, smiles back at us in startling digital glory.
And I can't focus on her, the small woman in the flesh at the microphone. Her slight movements -- a nod, a turn, a tilt of the chin -- become giant ones on the screen. I'm reminded for a moment of Dorothy's audience with the Wizard of Oz. Of course, my sister and her video image are identical, unlike the thundering puppet head and its master, but the projection is still a bit disturbing. So dramatically magnified, it draws the eye away from the real person below.
But isn't that the point of it? I think. To help us see better, to allow us an enhanced point of view?
Maybe. I feel like I'm losing something, though, if I ignore the woman standing right in front of me in favor of the bobbing on-screen head. I can't watch both. I try to anyway.
The hors d'oeuvres at the reception are, indeed, heavy. Fortunately, to save me from eating too much, there are scores of my sister's friends to be introduced to. Some I recognize from my last visit a little over a year ago. Others are mentors I've heard of only by name.
There is one woman whose face gives me a double-take. The wire-frame glasses, the slightly upturned nose, the sandy curls, front teeth that peek out below a thin upper lip with a bit of mustache, and that raspy voice with a New York accent -- she is the doppelganger of a professor who has sat on my thesis committee for two years. The woman at Little U. is the sort of person who invited my research methods class, which she also taught, over to her house for potluck on the last night of the semester, just before I moved back to Seattle.
The woman at this reception supervises a group of medical students who travel each summer to run a clinic in South America. I realize my sister introduced me to her on my last visit, at a coffee-shop planning pow-wow for one of those trips. The woman doesn't remember me -- and I don't expect her to -- but the memory of her warm hug from that first meeting comes back as I greet her now. She is effusive, pouring forth compliments about my sister, this class, how special they are to her. It's impossible for me not to remember my own professor's words from potluck night, the same sort of praise overflowing from her in uncannily similar tones.
I'm not looking for these parallels in this moment; they've somehow found me. But for once they aren't grounding. In fact, I realize, I wish not to see what I see this time because it's made me aware of the other comparisons I can't help making -- between the path I chose, to write, and the path I rejected, to become a doctor myself. At one point, that was what I truly believed I wanted to do.
The need to be present for this rite of passage, then, the importance of getting here. You wanted to see what could have been, a voice whispers in my ear, and I recoil.
Don't, I hiss back silently, guiltily. This isn't about you. I glance around the circle my family has made around my sister and the woman who continues to effervesce. Good -- they haven't noticed the extra head I've suddenly grown, or the conversation I'm having with it.
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