Retirement is often a pseudo-haven, incarcerating the unaccomplished, the unfinished and the unforeseen realities. The predicament of retirement escapes nobody, and this old, crippled woman that I now am thinks of her legacy. The journey had involved much work, struggle and, at times, pain, but I had stood by Aristotle and his revered words about endurance being the greatest part of courage.
When your heart stopped, I was surrounded by people who did not know you. People who would not recognize your tired eyes, your weakened smile, the sheepish facial expressions that always accompanied your soft-spoken words. I had already started a new rotation at another hospital and was no longer a part of your care team, though I checked in periodically to see how you were doing.
When I received the news, there was no space to process you. I was standing in a crowd of white coats, and I was utterly alone. These were not the white coats who had spent morning after morning with you, checking in to see if your pain had lessened, if you were feeling more upbeat. These were not the white coats who had pored over each lab, each scan, each part of your history in the hopes of unearthing a clue we had previously missed, of uncovering a piece of the puzzle that would explain what brought you to us a few weeks earlier.
Yet three months pass there across a table.
“The recipe, please!” I ask, eyes widen.
Behind the kitchen stove, a soft response
In foreign tones, “Lo siento, querida.”
“But do not pity me,” says the smile.
It was another beautiful day in Toledo, Spain, with the final petals on the chrysanthemums falling from the clinic balcony. I was in the community kitchen with Himo, the cleaning lady. We chatted while she brewed a fresh cup of sugared, Moroccan mint tea for our patients.
It was one of those mornings when the light penetrated a window with a fierceness that could drown even a hospital room in a 10-foot blanket of warmth. In room 5307, this brightness shed light on frailty. He felt warm, alone. Bony ends obviated their presence beneath crisp white linen.
I sat beside him, agonal respirations as last words. I shuffled between bedside and nursing station telemetry monitor, focused on the upper right screen. 70. 54. 45. 30. Lifeless waveforms. A pause and end in pulsation. His hand in mine with no flinch, no change, and yet so much had passed.
I did not know to ask for a bereavement day to mourn a baby I hadn’t told anyone existed. Since they did not know, how could I ask for comfort, acknowledgement of loss, special handling in the weeks following the miscarriage? Everyone at work felt mean and cruel and quick.
My husband hadn’t been particularly happy about the baby; we were just digging out from the first two, so I was pretending to be put out. How do you grieve what you said you didn’t want when every ounce of you was thrilled, and no one knew of your rock-skipping, wing-flapping happy?
Local EMS responded to the 911 call: "30-year old male who can't walk." Upon seeing his dire condition, they drove lights and sirens to the ER. I saw the paramedics wheeling their patient into Room 1 and thought the handsome, young man looked too healthy for the critical area. Was he a VIP patient expecting special treatment? I didn't know whether to be alarmed or annoyed.
Then I lifted the sheet and couldn't palpate a post-tibial pulse. I ran to get the ER doctor.
Charlie, a fifty-year-old gay man and my patient for many years, comes for an office visit. His complaints are a cough and listlessness.
He is an outgoing, highly respected architect who teaches at a prominent university. He's left few precious stones unturned in his life and has been remarkably successful. He has a wonderful, loving marriage.
To offer further insight into Charlie's character and personality, some time ago he received treatment for a malignancy. Before embarking on treatment, he scoured every conceivable therapy and developed a thorough knowledge of the pros and cons of each one. Every step of the way, he shared the details of the investigation with me. I was greatly impressed by his ability to control his life so admirably and effectively.
My contribution to his detailed search for the right approach was to suggest that he accept one of the many treatment options, then do his best to deal with the uncertainty surrounding medical treatment.
I was a young, eager chaplain at a community hospital, completing rabbinical school. So eager, in fact, that I misread a referral regarding a patient who actually requested no chaplain visits. When I went to visit her, there was another woman with her. The patient then advised me that she didn't want any chaplain visits.
But she was kind and compassionate, and must have seen that I was a novice. She invited me to sit with her. As I came closer, she said to me: "Rabbi, I can't believe that I have only three weeks to live."
Morning rounds, on an August Tuesday. I’ve got two senior residents with me, along with two interns and a third-year student. We’re working our way through a list of patients scattered across several floors of the hospital. Most of them we had met just the day before. And a few, of course, were added overnight.
Beepers and cell phones shrill together, letting us know that one of our patients needs attention. We run up the stairs and find the code team already there. The student watches the interns performing chest compressions, wanting to participate yet glad not to be called up.
Throughout my adult life, I have tried to develop a strong voice—as a single mother, educator, writer and woman. This ability to speak for myself has made me feel impenetrable. Through self-expression, I have managed to survive the challenges of my life.
Then, in mid-July, I lost my voice—literally. I woke up with a severe case of laryngitis and now, six weeks later, still grapple with not being able to talk above a raspy whisper. My inability to communicate has made me feel vulnerable; I am dependent upon others to either speak for me or to have the patience to try to decipher my feeble attempts to speak.