The worst day of your life

“I suppose you’re going to tell me that this will be the worst day of my life?”

Coming from the mouth of a 10-year-old girl whose mother had just succumbed to an opiate overdose, the child’s words carried unspoken impact.

The priest who was telling me this story said he wasn’t sure how to respond.

This was back in the day when one of his duties was to serve as chaplain for the city fire department. The firemen would call him in on those sorts of impossible cases where no one had any idea what to do; cases like this one: a 10-year-old girl unexpectedly orphaned on the spot with no apparent next-of-kin.

By the time he arrived at the sparse apartment, other tenants in the public housing complex had started to filter in, each attempting in his or her own inept way to offer condolences and comfort.

“It was like something out of a Tennessee Williams play,” the priest said. “Everyone was concerned. No one knew what to do.”

“What did you say to her?” I asked.

Momentarily, the priest’s eyes regarded an infinite point in the distance; then he collected himself.

“I thought of all the bad things that this little girl would be facing in the coming hours, days, and weeks ahead. I thought of all the not-so-good things she might be facing for the remainder of her formative years, maybe even for the rest of her adult life.”

He lapsed into silence. Then the words came again. “Suddenly, I remembered that I had just lost my own mother. I knew how it felt. It felt like the worst day of my life. That gave me the courage to tell her: yes, this would be the worst day of her life; but there was always hope that somehow things would work out for the better.”

The hint of a tear glistened in the corner of his eye.

“Those are the ones that you always remember,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “They are.”

Sometimes in our struggle to care for others, we must first learn how to care for ourselves, how to lay down our own burdens. In facing our own suffering and accepting our own wounds, we learn how to help others heal.

Leaf dance

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. Philippians 4:8, NASV

On my morning dog walk I encounter a neighbor ambling down the sidewalk, her feet sweeping through the crisp vermilion carpet of fallen leaves.

“A big spider has taken up residence behind our back porch light,” she tells me. “Every morning there’s a new perfect web in place.”

My neighbor knows I like to watch spiders. “The nights haven’t been cold enough to kill them off for the season,” I say. “It will be sad when they go.”

“Every day I try to focus on something pleasant,” my neighbor says. “I find something to lift my spirits; it helps me deal with my pain.”

My thoughts run to the story I heard on the radio about the latest study on Alzheimer’s patients. It seems that they carry their feelings with them long after the memories which created those feelings have faded away. Sad feelings persist during a slow decline into depression; happy or pleasant feelings carry the day.

Perhaps my neighbor is on to something; perhaps we should all work on cultivating pleasant feelings by focusing on our positive experiences.

“Last night this spider left a loose line dangling,” she says. “It caught a leaf. For nearly an hour the leaf danced in the evening breeze. You couldn’t see the thread, only the leaf that spun and twirled under the porch light, refusing to fall. Our cat watched, mesmerized from the back window.”

A solitary crimson leaf, dancing in the night, suspended by a single silken thread. The image burns in my brain.

I recall the recent death of a young woman, her dark body suspended from a single cord.

Two mental images: one delightful, one horrific.

Objects do not house emotion; we bring our emotions to them. In them we see goodness or ugliness, horror or delight; and these are the emotions that linger long after the memory of the thing has faded from our consciousness.

Terminal man

Nearly all clinicians recognize that providing medical care which prolongs human suffering is anguishing, both to themselves and to the dying patient. more»

Interested readers can now peruse my latest Musings blog at the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (JAAPA) website.

JAAPA is the official publication of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.