Bits of Ourselves
There are many ways to begin a discussion about dying. A few of my favorites, however, include: “What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?” “Why was six afraid of seven?” “A horse walks into a bar…”
I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember the details of his terminal illness. But now, two years later, I remember his face like it was yesterday. I remember his room in the hospital. I remember the playful glint in his eye when the elderly veteran made clear that any doctor entering his room was required to offer up a joke-of-the-day before any medical discussion could be had. Day after day my palliative care team stood just outside of his room asking “Who has a joke? Does anybody have a joke? How about this joke? Why can I never remember jokes?!” Soon enough we started assigning it the night before: “You, look up the pathology reports on Mr. X’s tumor. You, talk to general surgery about if Mr. Y is a candidate for surgical excision. You, find a really funny new joke for Mr. Z for tomorrow morning.” Each day dealing with life, with death… and with the quest for one damn good joke.
What compelled him to insist on this rule? Was this the spirit with which he had lived his life? An attempt to bring some joy to a difficult reality? A reminder of his humanity? A gift to those of us treating him? A bit of many things?
After leaving the hospital, I doubt he remembered having ever met me. At the time of his death, he most certainly would never have imagined that one random doctor amongst a sea of treating doctors would be thinking about him two years later. And yet he is not an infrequent guest-star in my mind. Be it a sad moment in which I am contemplating a painful case, or a stressed moment before I step into a big exam: Pop— that grin on his face and that glint in his eyes pop into my mind, egging for a joke. A lingering gift that can’t help but bring a much needed grin to my own face.
The vast majority of this man I will have never known. And yet this most tiny piece of himself that I interacted with seems to have stuck. It rides with me still. Perhaps that is how it is with life: constantly putting tiny pieces of ourselves out in the world, so many floating off into the wind, never knowing where and with whom one may stick. Little bits of ourselves, hitch-hiking onto the souls of others, walking the earth long after we stop.
By: Danielle Chammas MD (@ChammasDani)