The patient before me is seventy years old. She wears enormous starlet sunglasses and a sleek pageboy wig. Her mouth is pursed, plaintive. As we talk she touches her wig every few minutes and apologizes repeatedly for her appearance, which gives no cause for apology other than that she is seventy, and a woman.
She quickly tells me that she used to be a model. She compliments my appearance. She apologizes again for her own. In the space of a few minutes, the frame of reference for her world becomes obvious.
I see this in women of beauty, and of former beauty, in our society that worships youth but ridicules age and dismisses experience. Accustomed early to the admiring glance and the extended hand, such women become dependent upon these things. Enfolded in admiration, they expect at some level that it will be there for them always. All their manners and concerns are enmeshed in this identity: I am a lovely woman. They adopt the secure and easy laugh, the slow knowing whisk of the eyelashes. For many years, these devices serve so well as to become nature itself: not tools or toys but the woman's very person.
Then when the facade begins to crumble, so too does the human being beneath. What am I now, if not lovely? Who am I?
Some successfully adopt other identities for themselves: wife, mother, grandmother; artist, healer, traveler. Others, like this woman in the sunglasses and wig, do not. She hovers forlornly over the carcass of her own beauty. She seeks at every turn to remind others of her former glory, hoping that they will now accord her just a fraction of that beauty's due. She cannot accept that she and loveliness have come unbound. Have the longing glances really evaporated so? Can she not recall them with a well-timed reminder of what she was?
The woman is labile, irritable, angry. She lashes out easily, then instantly begs forgiveness. At one moment imperious and demanding, the very next she turns and asks for mercy.
Better to praise and placate, or to reason and limit? This patient nurses a deep wound. Though her hurt seems cheap and reasonless, to her it is despair. She will be comforted only if I can conjure up the eager appreciation, the limitless sympathy which she came in some past existence to expect. But to what end such falsehood? Should I better demonstrate to her what she can expect to see from others? Explain that her treatment will be neither better nor worse than that of the fellow next to her? Upset her with the purpose of pushing her to understand?
I choose to soothe with admiration. I ooh and aah at the dog-eared photos of a slim young girl in a high-waisted Fifties bikini. We become friends, the former model and I. I give her what she wants, and she gives me what I do not want: a window into the future, a lesson to be tucked away for now and drawn out when I enter my own old age.