It was not a particularly stressful Saturday morning to work in the office. Only three prescheduled physical examinations and a handful of sick children came in by morning’s end.
One child, a 1-month-old, my first patient of the morning, had colic. His mother reported that he wanted to feed constantly; whenever she didn’t give him a bottle he fretted, sucking on his fingers and hands. I had evaluated him one week ago for similar complaints. Since then the child gained 1-1/4 pounds, nearly three times the expected weekly weight gain. Obviously, she was overfeeding him. I suspected that part of the reason might have been because her first child was born prematurely and had a difficult time gaining weight.
Mothers nurture through feeding; a thriving baby exemplifies good maternal care, but sometimes too much of a good thing is not best.
As the morning wound down I ruminated behind my desk and reviewed the remainder of outstanding laboratory reports, signed off on a stack of physical examination forms and phoned in prescription renewals. The medical assistants finished with the filing and departed, locking the front door behind them.
I snugged the bow tie at the base of my throat, picked up my blue blazer and stepped out the side door. It was a short drive to the funeral home. By the time I arrived the lot was nearly filled with vehicles.
Inside people milled about, speaking in low tones, touching one another briefly on the arm or shoulder, exchanging whispered words. Some paused before the large displays of photographs mounted on easels in the hallway.
I stepped into the parlor, signed the guest book and found the end of the receiving line. There were stands of flowers everywhere, roses mostly — pink and red and white — done up in intricate arrangements identified by cards signed by family, friends and well-wishers.
A small silver urn stood in the center of the table; a golden crucifix rested against it. On either side lay two stacks of books — three on the left, two on the right. I noted the author of the two on the right — medical titles reflecting her area of expertise.
Most physicians don’t leave any written creative works behind; she had left two — these two texts, in addition to her two teenaged sons, who stood in the receiving line on either side of their father. Each of the three wore a pink tie. Pink, the color of the ribbon supporting breast cancer research; pink, the color of the delicate rose in full bloom; pink, the color of fading rose petals at the close of day.
My words were inadequate — “I’m sorry for your loss” — followed by handshakes and brief smiles.
“How are things at the office?” the father asked.
“Busy,” I said. “Back to school physical exams, you know. It’s the same every fall.”
He nodded. “Thanks for stopping by.”
I left by the side door and stepped out into the heat of the early afternoon sun.
As practicing clinicians we are granted the high privilege of glimpsing the struggles of families entrusted to our care. For brief periods were share in their triumphs, their joys and ultimately, their grief.
But many times it’s the grief that seems to linger the longest.