Friday, September 9, 2011


They were like two peas in a pod. The pod a sterile deodorized nursing home and the peas withered and wrinkled.

I remember the first time I made the trip to the end of the hall and turned a sharp left into their room. I felt as if transported from a frigid blustery Chicago day into a cozy den. The fire crackling. The smokey smell of home.

I would later recognize this warmth as the rapturous, indignant heat of unrequited love. But for now it welcomed me into their surroundings. Bayed me to come. Spoke to me. Sit down and talk awhile.


Her medicine list was as long as an elephant's trunk. Her litany of diseases filled the tomes of her disheveled chart. Papers hung loosely to the binder perilously close to breaking free.

He was the more healthy of the two. Eighty five years old on dialysis with heart disease. They were the poster children for our healthcare system. Death was no longer an endpoint but more a bothersome tick, a flea. Annoying but something that could be dealt with.

I followed her in and out of the hospital. Seizures, heart attacks, strokes...she suffered them all. And each time she would return to their little room together. He doting over her with the patience and anxiety of a father watching his sickly child.

The love in the room was palpable. So much so that one day I asked how long they had been married. I expected five or six decades. Instead he answered quietly: Twenty five years.

I, shocked by his answer, pulled up a chair and placed it at the edge of the beds.

Tell me about it.

She looked over in his direction. Her eyes silently encouraging. You explain to him. You always tell it so well!


They dated in college. On graduation night spurred by the confidence of alcohol he asked for her hand in marriage. At this point in the story she averted her eyes in faux embarrassment. For some reason she declined.

Fast forward thirty years, two divorces, and five children later. Destiny brought them back together. As he said this a devilish glimmer momentarily flittered across his face. The subtlety was not lost on me. He likely engineered the meeting. Maybe she knew....maybe she didn't.

They lived happily together, of course, till illness brought turmoil to their lives. She was losing strength. Her will to live was faltering. And he was suffering.

He pleaded with me every visit. Please doctor...please. Don't let her die! I couldn't live without her!

Despite my best intentions. Intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Steroids and chemotherapy. Despite all I humbly had to offer. I received the call one morning. She was unresponsive. I arrived at the same time as the paramedics.

We were too late. I sat with him in a vacant room as the nurses prepared her body for transport. I held his hand and tried to stop it from shaking. He was silent. He was empty.

The next few weeks were difficult. He struggled with depression and pain. He was afraid to be alone. His family tried to comfort him.

One morning a medical assistant walked into his room and found him dead. His body finally reaching his soul.


As I sat in my office filling out his death certificate I felt both sorrow and triumph. I would later learn that he died on the morning of his beloveds birthday. She would have been eighty years old.

With unusual candor I filled out the rest of the death certificate. But my mind was elsewhere.

We doctors are like little Napoleons. We annex the human body as if unclaimed territory. We grapple as if we have any control over human fecundity.

I dropped the paper in the fax bin. A few minutes later the funeral home sent a fresh certificate with a note attached:

Dear Dr. Grumet,

Please repopulate the "cause of death" field on the attached form.

Your previous answer: "A Broken Heart"

is unacceptable

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