Matthew Lee is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at Dalhousie University
I was totally unsure. Meeting a patient who knows they are going to die... wouldn’t it be intrusive, at the end? A student coming into your life: asking questions, getting signatures, asking you to share your precious time. In the same position, I don’t know if I would say yes. That thought makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Checking in on the floor, with information hurriedly scribbled into the margins of a notebook. A brief run-in with her mother in the crowded room, then twenty minutes spent in the hallway — trying not to be obtrusive while staff hurry by. There are visitors every day, and I doubt I looked out of place.
In some ways, I chose to take on this project in order to become more comfortable with death. It’s something I have faced before, and it took years to move past my friend dying from lymphoma. He quickly stepped away to take a phone call at our convocation. It was a biopsy result. Nearly six months to the day and it was all over. It took nearly everything I had. Cancer was what I had been studying, gloved and white-coated behind a tissue culture hood carefully wiped down and UV’ed so as not to miss a single evil cell. It was fascinating — the cogs of cytokines and immune cells that came, trumpets blazing, to your defence. I stayed up all night before my thesis was due, formatting references and making last-minute edits. I remember the necktie I wore to the memorial service. I was totally unsure.
The artist in me found something after he died... bumped into something in the dark. It was needed. Writing was what I had, even though it had none of the grace that he did. The peaceful acceptance was beyond belief. Not just to me, but to everyone. It ached because we saw in him what we wished we ourselves had. The unfairness was bitter and didn’t fade for many months. His age really mattered; the future is a currency that the young can’t even fathom to count.
I walked into the room again when my twenty minutes was up. Her mother was on her way out — eager to run an errand, or keep busy, or both. I really didn’t want to interrupt. You never know what is behind that curtain. You truly don’t. I didn’t read the chart, and I doubt I ever will. But her grace was the same as my friend’s, which made it easier and harder at the same time. Our exchange was clunky; there was no rehearsed speech, no prepared words to say. It started with observation. A scratchy signature that wobbled itself across the page. I mentioned that mine wasn’t much better. I held my notebook like a map in my hands, because I sure as hell didn’t know where I was going. I bet I looked it, too.
The physician in me wanted to take on this project to help. To comfort at the end — where, for many, there is nowhere to go but up. You can’t possibly make things worse. Only better. There is comfort in that. Sometimes, there is nothing more soothing than talking to a stranger. Sometimes, a stranger is the easiest person to listen to. I think I was asking some of the questions I never asked my friend. I think I was receiving some of the answers he might have given. When she said that she lived a full life and had no regrets, it didn’t seem like a cliché. When she said that the only thing she worried about was her teenage daughter, it didn’t seem like a line from a book. We talked about memories that flooded back, suddenly, of all the happy things and times and places. By the end, although I wasn’t totally sure, I was less scared.
Note: This is a true story. The patient has given consent for this story to be told.
Suddenly I am back in the old barn
And feeling its walls rise around me
While age drops away
I am on the old property by the lake
And the old runaway horse reminds
Of times and of how time can run away too
Suddenly I am back in the old house
Looking out on the lake
Beds of flowers blooming and splashing
Sitting in the dining room ringed with furniture
And glass windows measured and cut
The details rush back
Suddenly I am back in my old bed
Ears content to miss the aches of hallways and beeping monitors
Silent sighs of indoor plants instead
Or bouquets and cards that loudly say their piece
Before falling quiet and resting
Beaming and glowing