Friday, October 24, 2008

How Mishra Got His Name

It was winter. Julia was six. She'd been climbing on snow mountains, flying down from the top with glee. Snow mountains, in case you're not from an urban area, are built by trucks sent out by the city at the hint of snow. Since it's Virginia and there's no threat of malingering snowbanks all winter long, the drivers scoop all the snow they can find into a huge pile at the end of the block. It will melt away soon enough but in the meantime, kids can climb and fly.

The next day Juia's leg began to hurt. I thought little of it at first but after nagging discomfort over the course of a week, long about the time when the snow mountain was a mere snow hill covered in black soot, I took her to see my orthopaedist, young Dr. Mishra. He and Julia took an immediate liking for one another. He took an x-ray and saw in it something ominous and terrifying - what he thought was a cancerous growth.

He ordered tests the next day. It was Friday and it was snowing again. The hospital was short staffed but also short of patients due to the weather. I sat with Julia for most of the day as she got a series of dyes injected, scans and x-rays. Since it was Friday, there'd be not results until Monday. We had the weekend to wait. A long weekend.

I think I spent every minute by Julia's side for those three days. I read to her. We watched favorite movies - White Christmas, A Chorus Line, Singin' in the Rain. I introduced her to some of my favorite foreign films, reading every word of the subtitles to her. She loved Babbette's Feast. I recommend it.

On Monday we returned to Dr. Mishra's office to the news that he'd been wrong, erring on the side of safety. What had looked like a lesion was probably the healing of a past injury.

A couple of weeks later the kitten we had chosen was finally ready to come home. In the interim between choosing him and getting him he got his name. Mishra. Julia proudly took Dr. Mishra a photograph of him.

Back to my visitor at the door, the one who demands that Mishra be kept inside. She said he comes when she calls. She didn't know his name before. I wonder how she's been calling him.

I'm reminded again of elders in nursing homes. Does anyone care about how they got their names - named for a great aunt; after a writer or movie star that their mother thought was special, in hope for enduring greatness for their child; for mother or father or long lost relative, generations removed?

What happens to a person's name when they enter a nursing home? Caretakers often take charge of it. They may address residents as "hon" or "sweetie". They may call them Mr. or Mrs. so and so. Will they call them by their first name? Unlikely. How often is the name of the person lying in bed in a hospital or nursing home accounced, not simply spoken? How can we know that elders, frail and unable to care for themselves, are comfortable, comforted by how they are addressed?

Dr. Mishra returned to Stanford before the year was up. I wonder if when he packed up his desk he put the picture of his namesake in the box with him. I sure hope so.

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