“Death is only a launching into the region
of the strange Untried; it is but the first
salutation to the possibilities of the intense
Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored.”Herman Melville
I had known her for decades. She came to me as a middle-aged woman with severe arthritis; one of the thousands of people who have been felled (sometimes overnight) from their relatively secure perch in life and are forced to deal with pain, fatigue, and the fear of disability.
We hit it off right away. She was barely five foot tall; robust; bright; articulate; funny. She had several children who no longer required intensive monitoring, and a devoted husband who long ago had recognized her ability and had allowed her to run the roost as she saw fit.
I realized right away that she would be hard to bring under control. Just about every joint in her body was involved, and she had failed to improve with standard therapy. Over the next twenty years we dealt with joint deformity, joint replacements, fractures, and numerous hospitalizations due to infections and medication side effects. A lot. Through all of these she had been a model of tolerance to medicine’s inability to keep her pain-free and fully functional.
She managed. Somehow, she made it. I saw her in wheelchairs, using walkers, canes, in stretchers… Always with a smile on her face and a hard core of will and resignation surrounding her. Invariably looking ahead, with courage and humor.
She still ran the house. She had her hobbies, the most incongruous one being her love for gambling. She was an excellent poker player: many a young know-it-all whippersnapper lost significant sums to her outwardly innocent façade.
One day she asked for an urgent appointment. She had developed a new pain. When she told me that she had she lost her appetite and dropped many pounds, I became concerned. The pain became unbearable for this paragon of toughness: she went in the hospital for a definitive workup. It was not long before we received confirmation that she had a rare and untreatable form of cancer.
Late one afternoon I went into her hospital room to explain our findings and to try to make plans. She was in between doses of narcotics, so she was alert enough to talk. Many family members were present.
Do you understand what is going on?
“Yes; of course.” I explained that the cancer was rare and severe. That there was no effective treatment.
We can get other opinions, but I think we will get the same answer.
“I want nothing done.”
I understand. We will do our best to keep you comfortable. “I want to be at home. No rehab units. No nursing homes.”
Done. I will place a consult for hospice care; they may help to make it easier for your caregivers. Patients and families are usually happy with the work they do. Any other thoughts?
“I don’t want to be one of these people that says why me.”
Look. You have endured unspeakable pain and inconvenience from the first day that I met you. Not once have I seen you gripe, or complain, or wonder about your bad luck. I am OK with a little why me now. Honestly, you are way overdue for this remark.
“I’ve had a good life.”
Indeed. Fuller than most. But you get the credit for it; you made it all happen. All of us should be able to experience that kind of satisfaction when it is our turn.
“OK if I’m scared?”
I will give you a pass. I hate to travel alone to places that I have never been to before. Yes, fear does not mean you are not brave.
“I don’t want to leave this…”
Said almost with a sense of shame. She felt that she should accept her fate without complaints.
I thought about her remarks for a few seconds.
Of course none of us wants to leave!
Then it occurred to me.
We are moving to a new home. It is time to downsize. We do not need all the space and most of the stuff that we have acquired over many years. But a big part of me does not want to leave.
I began to cry. Our son grew up in our house. We got used to the deer eating our hostas, and the owls waking us up at night. The woods are beautiful, and there were so many moments of tenderness, and yes, a few instances of tragedy and aggravation.
I paused for a few seconds to collect myself.
Of course you do not want to leave!
Everyone in the room joined me in my tears. A curious mixture of sadness, and regret, and joy at remembering the good moments. A cleansing moment.
You are moving to a new home. It is harder for you because you do not know what the new neighborhood will be like…
“I think I know.”
Bless you for your faith. There are times when I tend to waver on mine. Maybe they will have poker, but probably no suckers.
I stood up and gave her a hug.
Once again, a patient helped me more than I had been able to help her.
I moved to our new home with a fresh and spiritual image of the place. In two weeks, I learned to love and worship every corner of our significantly smaller home. It felt like starting a new life…