Today I mailed off a card to the wife of one of my patients. The card was a print of a watercolor of vibrant red flowers. This card was painted by a woman whose home I visited three years as she was dying of end stage breast cancer.
The cancer had spread to her lungs, causing fluid to build up in the lining around her lungs. She had a tube placed in her chest that constantly drained a pale yellow fluid in an attempt to give her lungs room to expand and her the ability to breathe. She knew she was dying. She was determined to do it on her own terms, in her home, surrounded by the flowers that she loved.
She had a marvelous garden. As we sat in her living room, her flowers outside were erupting with brilliance. Each day as she grew weaker and the time that she could paint grew shorter, she began to paint with even more fervor. Recently finished works were scattered about her house, capturing the defiance of life even as the shadows grew longer with the coming night.
As my preceptor and I walked toward the door, she handed each of us a packet of cards with her paintings on them. Doctors are not supposed to accept gifts from their patients, and I had never accepted anything before. But in that moment, it felt right. She had an adoring circle of friends and relatives but no children. Her paintings were an important piece of her legacy. With her offering of this gift and our acceptance, we created an unerasable, tangible trace of her in the world that would remain after she was gone.
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It's taken me two months to write to my patient's wife. I had wanted to write to her many times before today, but when I thought about what had happened, my guts twisted up inside and my breath caught in my throat. He had passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving in the wake of his death, a bewildered wife and his strong daughter, who was now holding everything together. She reminded me of my father's daughter. I think about the these two women now, mother and daughter. They remind me that for those of us who remain, there is only one thing left to do.
T O L I V E.