“Yesterday it did not seem as if today it would be raining.”
Last night actually did give just a hint of rain, after a glorious evening outside at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. This time Shawn Colvin was not driven from the stage by lightning.
And today it is not raining; it is a perfect summer day, and one of my sons is leading a pack of children up a magnificent mountain.
But I don’t believe Edward Gorey was speaking of the weather. I think he was addressing those unpredictable, turn-on-a-dime reversals in life that almost all of us will experience and witness with the people we love most.
Today is an odd kind of anniversary, which left its mark like only a handful of other days has. The word “anniversary” itself seems too inherently festive, because there is nothing celebratory about this day.
It is not the day we found out that my husband’s condition was incurable. That came months later. But on this calendar date, after several hours of waiting for a CAT scan at a hospital outside Boston, a surgeon pointed to the image of Jim’s pancreas on her computer screen in a windowless room and said, gently, “This is your tumor.”
When I talk about the health care odyssey my husband–himself a physician–experienced, the bookends are diagnosis and death.
Whether an initial diagnosis is delivered compassionately–and Jim’s was–can remain enormously important to a patient’s family. Much debate has been focused on whether physicians can or should “learn” to be compassionate. My opinion is that compassion can’t be taught: people can be taught techniques like eye contact; they can be trained at very least to count to ten if that is what it takes to avoid egregiously flip remarks when delivering very bad news; and they can listen to how important it is from the patient’s side to experience compassion. . . . but I don’t think true compassion, the human feeling of compassion, can be taught any more than one can teach a person to have perfect pitch, or enjoy the taste of eggplant.
Frederick Buechner’s meditation on compassion in Wishful Thinking describes it as “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.”
His description gives me pause, not least of all because it is the first time I have considered the possibility of terminal compassion, and because I first saw it months after writing that sometimes I feel as if I am inside my husband’s skin.
I realize when I ponder Buechner’s definition in conjunction with my absolute certainty that compassion is one of life’s highest values that perhaps there is indeed a line where compassion becomes perilous, and that my grief may have crossed it once I felt I occupied the skin of a husband who no longer himself is within that earthly vessel.
But I can still take on and try to continue to express his compassion for the living, and especially for those he loved and never wanted to leave behind.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon