“We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth
or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.”
- Ignatius Loyola
When she began coming to my office she was healthy. She had just retired from a lifetime of service, both as a salesperson and behind the scenes as an organizer. Her husband was also a patient. He had spent his life working for the railroad. They had no children. They got along well and had many interests in common. Money was not a problem. It was clear to me that she ran the household and made most of the decisions, but he was not bothered by this state of affairs. They were looking forward to a happy old age.
Things went well for several years. One day her husband consulted me about progressive weakness and lack of energy. After several consultations it became clear that he suffered from a rare neurologic disorder. There was no treatment available.
Without batting an eyelash she took over. She cancelled all their travels. She paid people to equip their home so that she would be better able to help him. He had served in the military and was eligible for benefits. In anticipation of a day when she would no longer be able to take care of him, she applied for admission to a local VA extended care facility (the waiting list was years long).
At every visit I noticed that he was slowly getting worse, but she managed and never complained about what had become a full-time job. When I received a phone call from the emergency room regarding this family, I assumed that he had fallen and had suffered a serious injury.
Instead the ER doctor told me that he wanted to discuss her care. She had experienced a seizure at home. Her husband was able to call an ambulance. Within a couple of days, we had a diagnosis: she had a large brain tumor, almost certainly malignant.
Even while she was still in the hospital, she took care of him. Phone calls were made to friends to come in to check on him and bring him food. She was placed on a regimen of radiation and high doses of cortisone. She had no more seizures, but the side effects of treatment were bothersome and significant. No matter. She understood that she was going to die, but her drive, her only reason to go on seemed to be to make sure that her husband would be taken care of when she was no longer around.
Her remission lasted eighteen months. She had a second seizure. The imaging studies showed that the tumor had grown. She agreed to a hospital stay in order to control the seizures, but soon she was back at home. Once she was strong enough to walk, she made an appointment to see me.
What can I do for you?
“I am fine. I know that there is nothing that you can do for me. I just wanted to say good-bye, and to let you know of the arrangements that I have made for my husband.”
She had managed to get him admitted to the VA facility a bit before his turn came up, because of her particular situation. She made sure that he had enough medicine in case that it took the nursing home some time to order his pills. All legal papers had been taken care of. She had me fill out a form for his health history and exam, which he would need on admission to the facility. I could not think of anything that she had forgotten.
How about you? Do you have any questions, or anything that you want done?
“I don’t need anything. Just make sure that they don’t resuscitate me.”
Of course. Any regrets? Anything that you wish were different?
She remained silent for a few seconds.
“There is just one thing. I wish that I had someone to say something nice about me at the funeral service.”
It hit me. They had no children. Most of their friends had died or were no longer in touch because of their inability to socialize. The husband was fragile and shy.
I will say something nice about you.
She looked at me with wide, almost incredulous eyes.
“Really? You would do that for me?”
I have been the designated eulogy giver for my family for a few years. I think that I can handle it. I will adopt you as a family member.
She was overwhelmed. She made one last phone call. One of her friends agreed to call me when the time came.
Two months later I stood in front of a few people in a chapel. I spoke about a woman whose life had been one of duty and service; about how she rarely asked for anything for herself. Someone who had to know that she was in good standing in this world and the next.
And yet… Her only wish was for a few kind parting words.
St. Ignatius spoke of the power of consolation. He believed that there were spirits that influenced our behavior, both in good and bad ways, and that we should be guided by the consolation that we felt when we performed good deeds (Jesuit experts please forgive my vast oversimplification of a complicated subject).
By accepting my offer my patient gave me the most wonderful present that we can give another human being: the chance to be of help; to soothe; to heal. The Jesuits refer to it as “cura personalis,” the care of the person. May this be our guiding light and reason for living; always.