The Midwest is home to some pretty crazy weather. Thirty-five years ago this month a tornado tore apart the new, rapidly-growing Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield. MrsPal was looking through pictures of the aftermath saying, “That was so-and-so’s house. And that one was across from…” etc. Everyone knew someone whose body or property was damaged. I knew a kid who had scars all over his body from a house collapsing around him. He had the same name as another local kid, so we always would say things like, “No, not that Steve, tornado Steve.”
Tonight, it’s not stormy, but something is falling from the sky that isn’t hail, isn’t sleet, isn’t snow, isn’t rain. Whatever it is, it hurts, and I have to chip away at my car door to get in. We just got back from dinner. A local Lebanese place has great fish during Lent (the rest of the year, feh). It’s a whole Great Lakes whitefish, fried, and covered in lemon juice, garlic, and other yummy things. Before that we were at a shiva, the reason for braving the weather in the first place. The decedent had been a patient of mine, but I also knew him socially. I met him many years ago when he and his wife, neither of them terribly young, were sitting in my office holding hands and making eyes at each other like drunken teenagers.
He was concerned about his memory. He was a brilliant medical professional, and he and his wife visited all the local experts and had been unable to avoid the conclusion that he was becoming demented. Oh, but they were so in love, and while they were frightened and sad, they had each other.
That was ten years ago, and his life went on as these things often do, with those around him trying to lead normal lives while a man they deeply loved slowly but surely disappeared. It is one of the privileges and one of the sorrows of medicine to develop uniquely intimate relationships with strangers only to preside over their decline.
I’ve been in practice about ten years now. The recent move to a new practice, which has kept me away from the keyboard, took a bit of work. One of the most unsettling tasks was going through a list of thousands of patients to contact and weeding out the dead—it’s bad form to send letters to dead people. Each time I would come upon a name, I would halt and see an image of them, remembering their voice, the way they lived, the way they died. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if they were dead—maybe they just hadn’t been by in a while, but they sure were old. I would cross-check various databases and then delete their name from the mailing list, wondering how they had left.
While I may see a lot more of my older, sicker patients, I know that the younger ones will eventually spend more time with me, around the same time I start seeing my own doctor more than once a year. It reminds me that every night that my daughter pesters her mother at bedtime whining for Daddy, I should be there. Every second with my family, even the “bad” seconds, are precious. It seems that it would be easy to accumulate regrets in life, many of which are seen best in retrospect. Perhaps I can learn this sooner rather than later, that despite being carded at a restaurant last week, time isn’t infinite, childhood cannot be taken for granted, and no one has ever said at the end of their life, “I wish I’d spent more time at work and less with my family.”