Bear Versus Raccoon

“Excuse me, but—Dr. Panda. That’s a very unusual name.”

“Yes, well.” The light from the window hit the doctor’s large round spectacles, and for a moment they looked like a one-way glass. “Your scans show some very concerning developments, Mr. Worth.”

Pete heard what the man was saying. He saw the look of worry on Dr. Panda’s face, but then there was that mental hitch that kept tripping him up. What made matters worse was that, in fact, Dr. Panda reminded Pete very much of a bear.

“Your brain scans show a progressive degeneration in Wernicke’s area—”

He was jowly, for one, with curly gray hair and a meticulously combed, short gray beard. His body was bearlike, and his large, round ears stuck out on either side of his head. He shifted positions slightly and the light changed, allowing Pete to see the doctor’s eyes—which had noticeably dark circles. Pete suppressed the impulse to laugh.

“It’s just that,” he interrupted the doctor. “I’ve never heard the surname Panda before.”

“Mr. Worth,” said Dr. Panda, trying to control his frustration, “you are seriously ill. I’m sorry, but it’s very important that you concentrate on what I’m saying.”

Pete wondered if patients were tempted to give Dr. Panda cards and gifts with panda themes. He cast a furtive glance around the small utilitarian office. No binary bears of any kind. But—there was a bamboo plant in the corner. He pictured the doctor telling the nurse: I’ll eat lunch in my office today.

“Mr. Worth?” Dr. Panda leaned forward, his hands extended on the large metal desk. “Are you … laughing?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Pete gasped. “Please go on. It’s just the whole Panda thing—”

“It’s Latin.” The doctor adjusted his glasses humorlessly. “Mr. Worth,” he began again with fresh resolve. “You have a very rare brain disorder. I won’t beat around the bush; the diagnosis isn’t good. But it’s not necessarily a death sentence. You may be able to live with it.” He sat back in the creaky office chair, resting his interlaced fingers on his ample girth.

“You will slowly, over time—or perhaps quickly, in a span of months—stop making sense to others. It is, unfortunately, a degenerative disease. By the end of your life—which may or may not be shortened—you will be completely incapable of verbal coherence.”

Dr. Panda handed Pete a plain white folder. Pete knew he was supposed to open the folder, but he didn’t feel like it.

“As you will find in the packet,” continued Dr. Panda, tenting his fingertips, “one of the more difficult aspects of Lark’s Aphasia is that you will continue to make sense to yourself. For every word that sounds like gibberish to others, you will be forming complete and reasonable sentences in your own mind. You will hear back in your own ears words that appear—the key word being appear—to make sense. But they will not in reality correspond with your intended message.”

Dr. Panda removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses with the edge of his shirt. “Mr. Worth, are you married?”

“Why, Dr. Panda! I didn’t know you felt—”

The doctor sighed heavily. “I’m simply asking because sometimes it’s best to call a loved—”

“Divorced.”

“I realize this is quite a blow. I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

“I do.”

“Of course.”

“Just one, really. But it’s important.”

“Go on.”

“Is the panda a bear or a raccoon?”

Dr. Panda rose abruptly. “I’m sure I don’t know Mr. Worth.”

“Well, you should,” noted Pete with conviction. “I mean, if you don’t know, who can tell us?” He laughed outright. A nice, punctuated staccato that felt good coming out. A clean, classic Ha! Ha! Ha!

Pete got to his feet, because Dr. Panda was standing directly in front of him, as if daring him to enjoy the view of his crotch.

“Good luck,” said Dr. Panda, shaking Pete’s hand.

As Pete walked towards the door, feeling his giddiness starting to fade, he heard the doctor clear his throat behind him. “I think it’s a matter of some debate.”

Pete turned around. “What?”

“Animal classification.” The doctor stroked his beard. “It’s a surprisingly inexact science. People disagree. There are bear camps and there are raccoon camps.”

For some reason this comment filled Pete with joy. “Which camp do you find yourself in, Dr. Panda?”

“Well, they sure as hell don’t look like raccoons, do they?”

“No, they certainly don’t,” Pete chuckled. He paused at the door. “So, you could say the issue isn’t…black and white.”

A smile touched the corner of the doctor’s mouth. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “The matter is quite gray.”

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