Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Memoriam

It was a beautiful cool day much like this morning. I pulled into the parking spot recklessly. I was running late, but if I hurried, I might just make it. I grabbed my backpack and slammed the door shut without a second thought. Then my stomach sank. I heard the calm hum of the motor as I reached back for the door. Locked.

I felt the panic swell inside. My sixteen years of experience hadn't yet taught me how to deal with such things as overwhelming embarrassment. How could I have locked the keys in the car with the motor still running? As I stood frozen trying to find a way out of the situation, I heard footsteps behind me.

The women paused momentarily and gently placed her arm on my shoulder.

A little bit of a predicament...huh?

She had known me since birth. Her eldest child was my age. She was friends with my parents. And she had been kind enough to allow me to park at her house because I wasn't old enough to get a parking permit from my high school.

I remember her from childhood. At that time we lived on the same block. Her smile was always comforting. Motherly. And her kitchen usually smelled of something good. Her son and I were best friends once. But time and distance had taken their toll. Now we only ran into each other sparingly.

I was no longer a child, although I felt like a five year old parked in her kitchen waiting for my mom to come pick me up. I felt helpless as she called the police to have my car door opened. She made me hot chocolate while we waited. She neither teased nor chided. When I left she offered to write a note for my teacher. But I refused. I wanted to maintain the little pride I still had.

Over the next 15 years our paths crossed occasionally. My mom would update me on what was going on with her family.

I was busy with college, then medical school, then residency. I finished my training and returned to be a hospitalist at a local hospital. I was feeling young an important,competent, and ready to tackle the world.

I had known that she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Never a smoker, she was one of the unlucky ones.  From time to time I would stop by her room to chat when she was admitted for chemotherapy. We discussed her fears and anxieties. We talked about old times. I was just a friendly visitor to pass the hours.

The last time she was admitted, I made a point of coming early. She was in the hospice program and was dying quickly. I knocked gently on the door and let myself in. I expected to find a room full of people, but instead it was empty. Her family had stepped out briefly for a cup of coffee.

She was resting quietly. She was unconscious and breathing deeply. She had a look that I recognized-the look of someone who was walking her lasts steps through life's unexpected maze. I knew her time was fleeting.

So I sat next to her bed and let her know that I was there. Speaking softly, I leaned forward towards her. I told her that I was sorry for what she was going through. I told her that it was a pleasure knowing her. And then I said goodbye. I placed her hand in mine and promised that I would always remember.

I left the room before the family returned. She died later that day. Inexplicably, I didn't go to the funeral.

I run into her son every now and then. Our lives have taken such different paths, but we still share history. Unlike the people he now meets today, I knew his mother. And this means something.

I don't know why these thoughts came to me this morning as I got out of my car. Why such randomness pops into my head. But I am thankful for them nonetheless.

I will keep the promise I made to her that day.

I will always remember.

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