The length of life

Surprise: today was my first adventure in independent hospice calls, and seeing patients unfamiliar to me at that. My orientation ends by necessity next week when another nurse takes leave, but an early temporary need arose in the northern woods.

I spent a long while with the family of one man teetering on the edge – not technically my patient until morning, if he makes it that long. I was just running a morphine bag en route. Our veteran nurse there said that in 38 years she’d never seen a wound as bad as the one created by the tumor in this man’s neck. We had non-hypothetical discussions of mercy-killing with the family. One member wanted to pour all of the morphine into the patient’s gastric tube. Another called a priest to consult. It was real. (To be clear, by the way, hospice does not do euthanasia.) I called myself a hospice nurse for years before it became official, but this visit reaffirmed that for me. I loved hearing the other nurse, on the phone with our boss, say of me, “She is great. She is great.” It is good to be in work i was cut to fit.

Driving away from that house, I cried. It is hard to say what I felt. Was it even mine?

I drive long distances for my job. Yesterday i finished the audiobook of Paul Kriwaczek’s The Yiddish Civilisation. It was the first history book i’d read in years, and it put a lot of things into fresh perspective again. One is that humans are always creating and caught up in the same old bullshit, so i might as well relax about… all of the things that get my panties in a twist; I’m doing my best, that’s all i can do. I think of the burning issues in my heart in this era and am suddenly in awe of my incredible privilege: the things i get to be pissed about! Most of them are essentially abstract: philosophical or future-oriented or part of the game of human progress. Yes, we’re here to play this game, so let’s play to conquer – but at the same time, i’m just so lucky to have virtually no prospect of being, say, burned at the stake for being a weirdo.

The book reminded me that i definitely don’t need to get caught up in any dawning-golden-era messianic utopian fervor either. A) It’s been a flop so many times before. B) It’s just another way of mentally fleeing a present that never seems good enough. I don’t have any reason to believe that the present ever will be “good enough.” Challenge is just part of this bag. Contrast keeps this wheel in motion.

Throughout The Yiddish Civilisation, i was always struck by the incredible hardship of life for, oh, the vast majority of people on Earth for the vast majority of human history. Juxtaposed with some of the suffering that has come closer to my awareness in my new job, i’ve developed a keener imagination for the view of life as so, so long. I’ve experienced, as if it were my own, the feeling that some elders express when they say they are ready to go – done. I’ve heard so many families refer to the hard lives their dying relatives have already lived, thus regarding death as even more of a mercy in that light: “They’ve suffered enough” – not just with a terminal condition, but beginning long before… I started to relate one or two stories from people’s histories here, but i don’t want to overwhelm. It’s odd to notice, actually, just how much i censor on this general topic. Otherwise i might need to preface my post with a rating: R? for rough, or rank, or raw…

As Yiddish Civilisation ends, its author discusses Italo Calvino’s impression, on visiting America in the mid-20th century, that Jewish physicians were regarded as among the best because only the very brightest Jews managed to get past barriers to their admission to medical schools. Then i began another audiobook last night, as soon as the last one had ended: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. (I’d had no idea what i was in for on the job today – cancer is not routinely so gruesome, at least not anymore.) Interestingly, the very same phenomenon about Jewish physicians is mentioned early on in this book, and with reference to the Jew Sidney Farber, one of its central figures. I love the weave of one seemingly separate thing into another, the continuity of our stories…

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