“To be good is noble, but to show others
how to be good is nobler and no trouble.”
In one of the chapters in my book I write about times when, despite the fact that everyone’s doing their best, things go wrong. It’s one of life’s laws that nothing will ever turn out perfect. Today I try to lighten up the mood; we’ll talk about bad outcomes I’ve experienced despite my best intentions.
There was the couple I discussed in this blog not long ago. He was drafted into the Navy at a young age. He married his high school sweetheart, who was barely sixteen; by the time she was twenty they had a three year old daughter who ruled the household. I took care of all of them. By the time I had seen them twice I figured out that the little girl was smarter than both parents put together. Unfortunately, she knew that.
One day they made an appointment as a family. The daughter had chosen to set her own bedtime over the past few weeks. She refused to go to her room when she was told to do so. If she was carried in she would walk out. She insisted on sleeping with her parents. The lack of intimacy and the shame that they felt on having a child rule their lives finally got to them. They asked for my advice.
I had precious little training in pediatrics, but it seemed to me that this was a case where common sense would prevail. I ordered them to find a way to lock the child’s room from the outside. I forbid them to go check on her no matter how hard she screamed. I halfway shamed them into this agreement; I said something about how can two adults let a three year old run their lives.
Sometimes I discuss patients when I get home. Of course names are left out and I make sure that privacy is protected. I mentioned this couple to my wife.
“Why didn’t you send them to a counselor?”
I can handle this; it seems like a simple solution.
“You should send them somewhere.”
They have no money. They’ll be fine. They trust me.
Two weeks later they were back. The child now slept with them every night, and they offered no resistance to her manipulation.
“We did as you said. We bought a lock. We carried her to her room, kicking and screaming, that very night that we met with you. After she cried for an hour she began to jump up and down on her bed. Then she screamed even louder, this time for two hours. Then she fell asleep.”
I silently congratulated myself.
Why did you stop doing this?
“When we went to wake her up in the morning she was sleeping on the floor. Her left arm looked bent and it was very tender. We took her to the dispensary. They found a broken arm. She was placed in a sling. Now we feel so guilty…”
I said nothing. I figured that I had said enough already, and these two were remarkably nonjudgmental about my advice to let their child in pain scream unattended for two hours. I figured that at some point she’d get tired of ruling the roost; maybe when she started to date.
A few months later my wife asked me how the young couple was doing.
They’re fine. They get to sleep every night.
No need to mention that they slept with a daughter cuddled between them. I didn’t think that was the point.
Then there was Eunice. A delightful, kind, very funny woman in her sixties. She looked no older than fifty; her good health and vibrant energy misled many people who did not know her well. Her husband was fifteen years older than she was. Her only man; that was a common story in those days. He had been retired for a few years. Between his pension and his social security they managed to squeeze by. One day he showed up with a peculiar rash. I did some tests; one thing led to another. He had a large lung cancer. He didn’t last long.
After the funeral expenses Eunice’s savings were wiped out. His pension was diminished. She had to go back to work. The only jobs available for her level of training were in retail. She had to work on her feet thirty hours a week in order to make ends meet. Soon she began to have muscle and bone pains, to no one’s surprise.
At this time I began to take care of a very distinguished gentleman. He had managed his own business for decades. When he retired he sold out to a large national corporation. He had managed his savings well. He told me that he was very well off.
Not that I had to guess. He wore expensive shirts and ties to all of his visits. His appearance was immaculate. He was articulate, and respectful, and very formal. After I got to know him better we spent the greater part of his visits discussing business and politics. He was very well informed.
A few months after I met this man he told me that his wife had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Now our visits were spent discussing her steady deterioration. She died within a year.
Nine months passed. One day he told me how lonely he was. His wife had always been the social organizer. She planned their evenings out and their vacations. He felt lost without her, and he did not know where to start to find company.
I offered some sympathy. I allowed myself to imagine what life without a soul mate would be. I felt for him.
After he left the office I headed for the next exam room, where Eunice was waiting for me. A flash, a brilliant idea, crossed my mind. I took care of Eunice’s pains and complaints; I reassured her. Then I couldn’t help myself.
Are you ready to date? Is it long enough?
She did not think for more than a second. Of course. Her husband had been a lot older than her; once he got to his seventies he aged quickly. They rarely went out (no money) and they had few friends (most had died or moved away). Of course. If the right man came along…
I might know someone.
I proceeded to describe in very general terms my gentleman patient’s situation. Eunice agreed to a match, provided that he was ready.
I was very proud of myself at dinner that night. I told my wife of my great skill as a matchmaker.
“Have you lost your mind?”
Why are you so negative? I think they’d be a great couple!
“Because you’re a doctor. You don’t know anything about dating services.”
I know them better than anyone. I know this will work.
“What if it doesn’t? You’re their doctor!”
They’re grownups. They know there are no guarantees.
The next day I called the widower. I explained about Eunice; about how both spouses had died of the same disease; maybe they had a basis for a friendship. I emphasized the word “friend.”
He was interested. Very. I gave him Eunice’s number, with her permission, of course. That evening I told my wife how well it all went.
“Nothing good can come of this. It’s not your job.”
A few months passed. Eunice and the businessman hit it off in grand fashion. At first there were a few dinners. Then came long drives, and museum outings, and picnics. There had been one stay at a bed and breakfast. He loved her company. She liked his intellect and the way he was always such a gentleman. She was getting to go to places that she had never been able to afford to see.
I knew things were getting serious when his daughter and only heir (also a patient) told me how furious she was at me for getting this to pass. I don’t know if it was jealousy, or fear of a lost inheritance. She found another doctor and left my practice.
One day he showed up for a routine visit. He had this nagging cough; nothing that bothered him much. Although he did not smoke his wife had, and a lot. I ordered a chest X-ray. He had a huge lung cancer.
I was devastated. I showed him the films. The first call he made was to Eunice. He deteriorated fast; within four months he passed away.
Now Eunice had lost the only men she had ever been romantic with to the same disease. She had to go through the same process of grief and loneliness. To my surprise, she remained my patient for many years, until she moved away in her late seventies.
One day at dinner my wife asked me how the matchmade couple was doing.
They got along very well.
“Did they get married?”
I can’t tell you. Patient confidentiality.
She gave me the look. The one I know so well. To her credit, she did not press the point to enhance her victory.
I never made any more matches. Lord knows there have been many potential candidates. The wife is right; it’s not my job. There’s that saying about the road to ___ being paved with good intentions…