Here’s my column in today’s Greenville News! I hope you enjoy, dear readers.
She smiled and went on and on, completely ignoring her laceration. The story had no beginning, no end. It was wonderful. Her life as a child, her service during WWII, her academic adventures around the country. None of it connected, none of it especially in sequence. She just loved telling it.
I asked her a few questions, between looking at her wound, anesthetizing and closing it. She smiled each and every time, and in muttered, pressured speech, she started the loop again. Each version, each iteration was slightly different, had a few more details or a few less. But it came back to family, the war, school and work; the wounded boys, the coast.
It was as if she were clicking the images on an old Viewmaster toy, the kind with a circle of photographs that passed before binocular lenses, lending everything a rich, 3-D wonder in the days when movies were rare, the Internet was not, hand held computers were the stuff of sci-fi and records were available in three speeds. My father had some of those images that someone had brought from Hawaii, and the flowers and vistas were magical, and always came back in the same perfect, predictable parade of wonder to my young eyes.
I don’t know if my little patient had any understanding of what transpired between us. I don’t know if she remembered it an hour later, pleasantly ensconced in her dementia as she was. But I remember it. It is now part of my collection of stories, gleaned from young and old, sick and well, living and imminently dying patients. Also from friends, family and all those I have met over the years, all those I have loved…or even disliked.
But listening to her, I began to wonder what I will recall in my old age, in my own dementia should I be so afflicted. What stories, what moods or attitudes, what joys or fears will rise to the surface to entertain or plague others?
My experience with my sweet lady, whose joy lifted her above confusion and wounds, made me realize that I had better pay attention to whatever I plant in my mind, to whatever takes seed in my heart. That I should be very careful where I go, and what I do with my life, so that only good things are lodged in my soul…and in my slowly petrifying frontal lobes.
It is my sincere hope that when, or if, I am an old man in a hospital bed, seen and treated by some future physician or nurse, I will talk about wonder. I must pray that I do not recall elections or issues, politics or arguments, but that I recall my wife (who for all I know will be at my bedside rolling her eyes). That I will, in my repeating loop of stories, tell of my home in the hills, my parents, grandparents and creek, my pony and dogs, my friends, the beautiful girl I met at Halloween and married. I hope I will revisit flying across the ocean, and lying in the sand; caring for sick patients and winning against death. I would love to remember my children, each in my arms as their mother gave them to me, and then remember our walks in the forest, our games in the dark, our trampoline, dinners at home, laughter over games, trips across the country, passion, play, meaning in work, delight in words written, inexpressible joy at grandchildren (or great grandchildren). That I will cycle through the stories of wonder and delight so that my future doctor has to do what I did…to smile and leave the room while I am mid sentence, but uninterrupted in my endless praise of a life well lived.
We don’t know the future. But we can be reasonably certain that what we do now has implications for who, and how, we are later. We cannot live in anger or bitterness, in shallow puruits or wasted opportunities, and hope that we will lie in our old age and depart with satisfaction.
I hope, and I pray, that we all live our lives so that we will have a grand collection of images, tales, memories and smiles. And that when we tell them, we will laugh and smile, just like she did. Floating above loss, lacerations, pain or bitterness into a higher place of joy, even in dementia. A good life will do that to you.