Sunday, January 1, 2012


I would have sold my soul for those secrets. I gorged on the remnants during gross anatomy, ward rounds, and the sleepless nights of residency. I drank from the cauldron, and inhaled the magic till my jowls were complacent and full. I sat at the table of humanity. My chair neither higher nor lower.

Afterwards, looking into mirror the reflection was anything but transformed; older, but not measurably more wise.


I have seen the question in your eyes as you stare blankly at the pathology report held inches from your face. You read the word "leukemia", but shock rearranges the letters as if you are at home playing a game of Scrabble with your youngest son. Your wife holds your other hand, and you both sit silently. You haven't yet begun to process the difficult and possibly fruitless battle that lies ahead.

Until now, denial had been your shameful bedfellow. It whispered in your ear countless times like a forgotten lover.

Just wait. The shortness of breath is only allergies. It will pass.

Your friends noted how the pallor of your face changed. Your wife fretted over gasping breaths when you walked up a few stairs to the bedroom.


I have listened to your voice beckon and coax during the silence. Your husband smiles as he sits next to you, oblivious. He laughs one minute and cries the next. His memory is like an annoying fly that buzzes back and forth, but always is barely out of reach.

Your partner has become an innocent. You lead him back and forth about the house as if he is one of the children of your children. Moments and details are lost and replaced with sinister plots.

Someone has been in the bedroom and stolen my glasses!

He sits in a haze of plaques and tangles. He inhabits a world in which you no longer belong. You fill the same space, but he is not your companion.


I have interpreted the rise and fall of your syllables as your look longingly toward your son. The beast of mania, swollen and bloated, becomes as sad as the depression. His twenty five year old body is strong and agile, but guided by a brain that is no longer nimble.

You heave on the bile of his physical vitality as it mocks you. You survived the fear and uncertainty of childhood to land here. You talk of your friends, the empty nesters, and how they complain about free time and unused bedrooms.

You long to have space that is yours alone.


And as I look back at my four year old daughter who has fallen asleep on the way home from the airport with her hand intertwined with my seven year old son's, I can't help but choke on the irony. How can the world hold such sweet and passionate hope alongside the desperate, crushing pain.

As a physician, I thought I would have developed answers to such riddles. But as I grow older, I realize that my training has been more about answering "how". Such banal descriptions of cells and physiology rarely satiate the hungry. The answers to the fundamentally pressing questions are left to philosophers and clergy.

So you'll have to forgive me. When I thought I was learning secrets, I couldn't have been more wrong.

And besides my empathy, I have little else to ease your suffereing.

I don't know why.

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