“A fact may not come at all unless a
preliminary faith exists in its coming.
Faith in a fact can help create the fact.”
-William James in The Will To Believe
She was, by far, the nicest patient in the practice. It seemed to me that she had spent all her 75 years helping or trying to help out. First she was a devoted housewife and mother. Once her children were well along in school she found ways to help anyone who would ask, and many who did not. She was gentle; soft spoken; well-mannered. She always said “thank you” and made it a point to tell the employees how grateful she was that they were involved in her care. There are people who can put up this front as long as they are sure that someone’s looking. This woman was the real thing: she lived a life of dedication and hard work.
It was with great sorrow that I witnessed her go through several tragedies within a few weeks. Her husband died suddenly. One of her daughters was diagnosed with leukemia. A burglar broke into her home. I know this doesn’t sound right, but she literally sailed through these mishaps. She handled her grief and loneliness by diving even more into helping others. She became an indispensable source of support, both financial and emotional, for her daughter. She told me that she was not planning on calling the police after her house was ransacked. She figured that maybe others needed what she had more than she did (I did convince her to make the call).
When she came in for a checkup and I found a suspicious lump in her left breast, I found it very difficult to tell her. A mammogram confirmed my findings, and a biopsy showed a malignant tumor. I had her come in to discuss matters. This was one conversation that I did not want to hold on the phone.
I explained the biopsy results. She would need surgery; almost certainly a few rounds of chemotherapy. In those days nausea and weight loss were common side effects. I told her how horrible I felt for her; how unfair that life had dumped so many serious problems on her in such a concentrated fashion.
She smiled. Not her usual “I’m so happy to be alive” smile, though. More a smirk of resignation. She nodded once, looked at the floor, and within five seconds looked me in the eye.
“Don’t worry, doctor. If God did not think that I could handle it, He would not have given me this load to carry.”
I was flabbergasted. That her first concern was for me. That she showed only five seconds of anxiety for herself, and not a whiff of anger. That she kept such a strong faith. Then I felt a surge of a mixture of rage and pity.
God has not “given” you a cancer. You of all people! Please do not feel in any way that you deserved this, or that there was a plan to try to destroy you. It is just life; just a bad streak. We can beat this; things will be OK…
I stopped myself cold. I realized that I was doing the wrong thing. In my desire to help her feel good about herself I had made a frontal assault on her faith; on her only source of strength and courage. I was making her worse. It showed in her eyes. She could not understand why this very nice doctor that she liked so much did not comprehend what was so clear and obvious to her.
I can see your point. It may be a test. Of course God will always be there for you and your doctors. We will work together.
A half smile.
Let us set up all the needed appointments. I repeat: we will beat this. I stood up and held her hand.
Now a full smile; the same one that she always rewarded us with after each visit.
She walked away from me, into the unknown, with a solid plan and a bright guiding light.
Faith. So inspiring. So controversial. Saints whose deity urges them to give up everything they own and devote all of their lives to helping out. Men and women who wrap themselves in explosives and set them off in a school bus full of children, in the name of God.
I learned my lesson. I clearly saw that this woman’s faith was as much a part of her as her smile. No way to tease them apart without destroying both. That is how she coped.
She did well. There were no more disasters, and she died peacefully ten years later.
I am still grateful for the lesson that she taught me.