***The following story is being shared with the subject’s support, encouragement and consent. Names & identifiers have been altered to respect privacy***
The most important lessons I’ve learned in medicine have come from the wisdom of patients. While every patient’s story has intrinsic value, some leave a lasting impression.
James had a rare command of the English language. He once told me that I have a “kittenish twitch of the nerves that’s rather charming.” Never has my anxiety been acknowledged so eloquently.
He called our first visit a seminar. He sat me down and read me his poetry. He gave me homework, which included giving him notes on a few of his works in progress.
I’ve completed a lot of homework in my 20+ years of formal education, but few assignments have caused me such concern about my performance. This man was a genius; a rare gem of a human being.
I returned the next day with very little feedback for him. I said something mediocre like, “I love it all!” This was true, but he was clearly disappointed by my lack of constructive criticism. James was on a constant journey to self-improvement and discovery, even well into his 90s.
In subsequent visits, he described what it was like growing up during the Great Depression, and how he lied about his age so he could serve in WWII. He recalled moving to North America after the war and working as an actor. He recounted his journey to Buddhism, and reflected on Buddhist philosophy and teachings.
He spoke of his wife in a way all partners want to be described by the person they love - with candour and admiration.
I love all aspects of my work, but these are the moments I delight in. The times when we can set aside the medical particulars, and engage in ways that honour our humanity. As one of my favourite palliative care physicians, BJ Miller says, “There’s nothing inherently medical about dying… it’s purely human.”
On one of our last visits, James gave me a copy of his poem, “The Art of Dying.” When I asked him if I could share it with you on my blog he said, “Of course! Every writer wants to be read.”
So here it is. I hope his work teaches you something too.
The Art of Dying
Seeing that we have no experiential relationship with death,
It must therefore be the act of dying that causes so much confusion.
Wise men do not seek to perfect the art of surrendering unto death,
But more the art of just letting go their attachment to the burden, or life itself.
“In His Father’s house, there are many mansions” we are told… But in our house
There is but one, which we start building from the very moment of our
Screaming arrival and divorcement from mother.
From there and onwards, with every sentient moment, we reach out,
To grab and grasp at each passing moment, thereby cementing and fortifying
The very idea of self! Thus, the idea of self, good, bad or indifferent,
Without wisdom, or caring, commences to construct this phenomenon
We call “Our Life.”
Unfortunately, this structure we call “Our Life” has its foundation
In the sands of ignorance and time woven decay.
Such is the destiny of human existence, until it becomes able to still the mind.
To aid in such an endeavour is to help our selves.
Be aware! Be mindful! Be loving, without conditions!
Know when you are angry! Know when you hate!
Know the good and the bad ideas you have of your self and then…
Suck up the compassion within you. Oh yes! You have compassion!
There is no thing bad. No thing good. Everything, just is.
So gently… with loving kindness… just, let go……………
And all the stars, of all the Heavens, shall there make Avenue.