A Dying Man

After relating his prognosis to a dying man with widely metastatic cancer, I am surprised to find that this man’s primary concern is to finish his novel.

“I must finish it before I die,” he tells me.

With bravado and a boyish grin this gentleman then asked if I was married. When I answered no, he followed up with a wink, asking if I’d be interested in a date with a dying old man? I smiled, laughing softly at his joke and told him that I must apologize, but the doctor-patient relationship would not allow it . After relaying his prognosis I rose to leave this man and his son to find their peace, but when the old gentleman told me he would appreciate my company, I promised to return. When I did return several days later, I did so to hear this man’s story.

He was eating his hospital dinner accompanied by an old and longtime friend of his. I listened quietly as they recounted their tales of chasing women and a “rapscallion” youth. Married three times, this patient’s third wife and the professed love of his life had died of cancer years before. It is for this reason, he tells me, he does not fear death, as he has already been intimately a part of the process. Again when faced with death, his primary concern was to finish his novel. How human of him – I thought – the recognition of our limited time on this earth and the desire to leave our mark on it.

“Three marriages?” I laughed, “Surely you have it down by now?”

And so the old gentleman told me his 3 secrets to a successful marriage, which he claimed to be caring, communication and attraction. He told me that the problem with the world is that woman grow up wanting to be sweet and beautiful princesses, while men do not grow up wanting to be princes, but rather wanting to be scoundrels. He believed this to be the root of many of the conflicts between men and women.

This gentleman and his friend continued to muse on their former lives for some time and I listened quietly reflecting on their tales . I was struck by such a beautiful opportunity to hear another reflect on a  life of memories as that life comes to a close.

At the end of our conversation this gentleman told me he had once thought to become a doctor, but had reconsidered stating that he hadn’t wanted to give up his life. I looked at this man and told him that I sometimes worry the same thing. I am young and I spend most of my days wrapped up in a hospital or with my head in a book, but I told him, too, that here in the hospital I see another side of life that not everyone has the chance to see. Every now and again a patient comes around that reminds me of this and makes me feel alive.

Knowing I meant he was one of those patients, a furl broke his old and wrin­kled brow. This old man with silver hair, full of bravado with tales of lust and living despite his cachexia looked up at me with eyes that became wet. “You are one of the good ones. Thank you,” he told me.

And with this farewell I left this man in his hospital bed to reflect on his life and to find his peace in his passing. He was transferred to oncology and dis­charged several days later. I do not know where or how this man is and it is very likely that his passing has already come, but I do know that through medicine and the revelation of our own vulnerabilities that patients can enter a state of anger and denial or one of reflection and peace.

You do not connect with all of your patients, but when you do and when your souls touch in that intimate way of patient and provider, you become part of a process so much bigger than yourself. The circle of life, the realization of our own mortality, the human responses to those ramifications, the pleading, the hope, the acceptance, the pain and the love that can all be present . What it can teach and show and make you feel if you are receptive to it. That is what I love about medicine – the view of the soul it grants you.

A native of North Salt Lake and graduate of Utah State University and UUSOM. She is a psychiatry resident at the University of Utah and frequent Rubor contributor.