It’s pretty cold out there. It’s the wind, really; the sun is warm but the wind is brisk out of the north. I’m wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. Today is supposed to be a run day, but I’m not up to it, at least not yet. I’m finding weekends to be more and more about catching up on sleep (at least for me; for my wife, it’s nearly as busy as weekdays). I’m still not sure how much of yesterday I slept away, but probably quite a bit.
We spent the evening with old friends, my oldest friend, one whom I’ve known since toddlerhood. An old restaurant we remember from childhood re-opened downtown after many years. We sat and laughed, glancing at the ballgame on TV, watching the freighters crawl along the river. The lights of Canada are brighter than I remember them. It almost looks like a big city, but it’s just a shell of casinos and restaurants enclosing a small city suffering from the same automotive woes as we are on the north side of the river. Still even our side has its beauty. The new Riverwalk looks inviting, ready to take on early morning joggers, midnight strollers. But after our dinner, it stands empty, brightly lit but barren.
This strangely-prolonged spring has brought some surprises. Flu spiked late this year, sneaking around the vaccine in many cases. Our magnolia, ready to flower after weeks of warm weather, lost all it’s buds to a sudden freeze. Some sort of little brown bird is nesting by our front door. My daughter saw an adult standing by with a dragonfly in its mouth. When I explained what it was for, she gave me a look that said, “I’m a picky eater and I’m very OK with that.”
Last year at this time I was experiencing a particularly intimate view of illness. My wife lay in a bed, delirious, in pain, cut up. It’s not a time I look back on fondly; in fact, I don’t look back at all. People say we can learn from illness, but that’s a lot of perfumed bullshit. Suffering is suffering. Sure, you may learn some new facts, but I don’t see the dignity. Crying out in pain, and suffering in silence are morally equivalent. When someone I love is sick, I don’t care if their stoicism is “inspiring” (luckily, my wife never suffered that vice). Pain is pain; we don’t choose how to handle it. It handles us, and ungently.
Never give bad news on a Friday. No matter how awful a diagnosis I have to deliver, waiting two days will rarely change the outcome, except by destroying a final, pain-free weekend. Fridays are full of freedoms. Aside from avoiding bad news where possible, I’m in no hurry. I usually spend as much time as I need with patients, but on Friday even more so. The last patient of the day is a bit of a random pick, but I often spend more time with them than any other patient, whether or not they are suffering a crisis. If they feel OK, I may use the time to get to know them better, let them tell me the things they’ve told no one else. Patients often preface such confessions with, “I really shouldn’t bother you with this…” but I’m precisely whom they should bother. Your marital crisis affects your health. Your child’s illness puts your drinking in context. Your fear of aging is full of truths and half-truths, some of which I cannot sooth, some of which I can. I like the look of relief on your face when I relieve you of a burden you’ve been carrying unnecessarily. The spouse who left you in the 1950’s is present to you, so he’s present to me. Sometimes I walk away deeply sad, but never less wise, and never less humble. Your worries, your suffering, helps me help you and helps me help others.
There is no dignity to suffering, but know that perhaps, just maybe, if you share your stories, others can benefit, and I suppose for some this brings a bit of relief.