A Couplet and Complicated Compassion

Mill Pond, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
(c) June 2012

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 decisively incurable.  That came a handful of 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 read 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.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire
View from Prescott Park (c) June 27, 2012

(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon

Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

19 thoughts on “A Couplet and Complicated Compassion”

  1. well, maybe we should just start to count the number of times your exquisite writing can make me weep. . . I hope above all else I have compassion. Your own — and your husband’s through you — shine through.

    1. Thank you, and you have no idea how much it means to me to have a real author compliment the writing! I also don’t think you can be either a good parent or YA author without a generous helping of compassion (and memory of what it was like to be that age).

  2. Prescott Park!! I love that place…many fond memories…and Theatre By the Sea…lovely piece you wrote Stephanie!

  3. Thanks, Luc. Jim and I were once walking with our pack of toddlers by the summer flowers and fountains in the park; we looked up and he said, “It’s Jean-Louis!” He and your mom had chosen that moment to walk in between the gates after driving down to Portsmouth to meet friends. Buechner of course had something to say about coincidence, too, in the same book: “Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: ‘You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.'”

  4. Thank you for your writing, Stephanie. When Gene was alive I felt I was in his skin and he in mine. We were friends, not man and wife, but we worked together in an extremely intimate setting….writing/recording/performing/producing/mixing/mastering music. We never ever had
    nothing to say. Daily, I would feel what he was thinking and who he had talked with just a moment
    ago on the phone. I could hear it in his voice. He used to call me and say, “Sis, guess who just called me?” I would drink in the sound of his rich velvet tones and an image would appear like
    lightening and 90% of the time the image was correct. Many times they were people I had heard about but had never met. I just remembered what his voice sounded like when he had mentioned the person. I have compassion. God graced me with it. I am not sure what you mean by fatal and I would love to have clarity on that.

    Gene, gone now almost one year…July 29, and I still hear him, sometimes I think like him, as if he is in my brain. Recently, I was producing a jazz project in NJ. Ron Carter was the bassist for that incredibly delicious session – 18 songs! I walked in the studio late (I’m trying!), and the engineer played back the first take of the first song, and without a moment’s hesitation, GENE said, “I hear something in the bass”. It was my voice but his words. The drummer, pianist and composer, and the sax player all sucked in every molecule of air in the rooms…….silence…..and then….”let’s do another take”.
    And they did, and it was great and everybody had a great time and no one questioned my womanly authority in the man’s world I was to work in for the rest of the session.

    Compassion isn’t something you can teach, and neither is courage. I think it takes courage
    to be compassionate. I also believe that we are all connected in an ocean which is full of the living and the transformed. It is all LOVE – GOD, if you are ok with that, taking on different forms created and re-created moving ever closer to the light.

  5. I can picture what you’re describing because I experience it every day. In his book “The Mind’s Eye,” Oliver Sacks discusses perseveration of vision as a neurological phenomenon: seeing what is not actually there, the mind filling in spaces, creating or recreating what the cones and rods might be taking in and processing if they could. I have perseveration of vision and voice with Jim (with whom I also spent thirty years) every day. Maybe with more musically inclined people what predominates is a perseveration of voice and its nuances: you can still not only hear his voice as it was with you, but as it was with other people. It takes a great deal of compassion and love to be able to pick up on those nuances in tone.

    I’m not at all sure what Buechner meant by describing compassion as a “sometimes fatal capacity,” but my impression is that he meant compassion can cross some line where one identifies so much with someone else’s pain–even someone else’s death itself–that one is paralyzed and can’t move forward into that light. Perhaps it is like the mother of the girl who perished in Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” where it is the dead daughter’s voice that speaks to her at the end: “Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will . . . . Think of the vine that curls from the small square plot that was once my heart. This is the only marker you need. Move on. Walk forward into the light.”

    1. OMG Stephanie, I didn’t know that you responded! How sweet, how wonderful, how cool is it that we have this??!! Thank you!

  6. Stephanie, do you think maybe some of the problem is that doctors are too young? They have not yet been convinced of their own mortality. They haven’t yet experienced true profound personal loss and as such, are uninvested in providing compassionate care? It’s only when you yourself have been fully ripened (an old German saying) that you are able to function as a fully developed human being. Maybe end of life patients should have the benefit of fully ripened physicians who understand the profundity of their charge. When I think of the pre-meds I hve taught, I have to say that as lovely as they are and have been, I would not want to rely on them for my end of life care.

    Oh, and by the way, as always — what Gae said. Your writing always makes me cry too.

    1. Hi, Alice,
      Thanks for reading, and I think that’s an excellent question. In our family experience with Jim’s illness and end-of-life care, I actually found that youth was not an issue at all: some of the most tone-deaf and less-than-compassionate care came from physicians who were nearing retirement, while both Jim and I received incredible compassion not only from younger physicians, but from medical students and those in training. My own feeling is that compassion is largely inborn, and goes hand-in-hand with the ability to identify with someone else’s situation. It also may have a lot to do with the reasons for which one goes into medicine: like my line of work and as with politicians and successful corporate heads, there is going to be a percentage of incredibly successful people who, literally, have psychopathic personality traits and who may be quite financially and professionally successful but under whose care or tutelage or personal or professional influence I would not want any other human.

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