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Enough about me

My new doctor interrupted me just as tears began gathering in my eyes.

“Good timing,” I told her, stifling sniffles. “I was just about to get to a really sad part of this book, The End of Your Life Book Club.” I gave her a brief synopsis of the non-fiction book, in which a son writes about the informal book club he and his mom shared during the last two years of her life.

“Hmm,” she replied, before asking how I was doing.

Twenty minutes later, I thanked her profusely. “I just can’t tell you how thankful I am for you. I mean, where would I start?”

She smiled. “I’m in this line of work because I want to help heal people.”

I thought of our meeting as I trekked out to my car, but I was too ravenous to think very clearly. I downed some much needed protein and iron in a Del Taco parking lot before beginning my forty-minute drive back home. I flipped on the radio and was immediately catapulted back in time by the opening notes of a beloved song.

Young me sat in the local library, reading about Ryan White, a teen who died of AIDS in 1990. I read about a singer named Elton John, who sang the song “Candle in the Wind” in Ryan’s honor the day before Ryan died. And, no matter how stoic I usually was by default, I had to struggle to hold back tears when I read the song’s lyrics.

Some months later, I was playing Monopoly with my siblings around our dining room table. As usual, I was winning, because I was the eldest child and I chose–and strictly enforced–the rules most favorable to me. A song came on the radio, and I smiled.

I like this song, I thought. But the lyrics reminded me of something. Why did they sound so familiar?

It hit me: I’d read them as I learned about Ryan White, there in the library. I didn’t bother with feigning stoicism, because there was no way I could have feigned it. I pressed my face to the table, shielding my head with my arms lest my siblings laugh at me, and sobbed.

And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did

candle

Candle

My heart ached for Ryan, who would never play Monopoly with his family again, nor hear another song on the radio. But, though I ached, I found there was something good in my sadness. Feeling for someone else took me out of feeling miserable about my own circumstances. When I felt empathy, I had no room left over in my heart to feel angry, or irritable, or anything other than whatever it was I felt for someone else.

It took me another decade to understand that empathy would be essential to my escaping depression. It would be still another decade and change before I’d hear the song on the radio and find my heart overflowing with thanks to hear the song through adult ears, and to do so at that exact moment.

My heart was already full, thanks to Mary Anne Schwalbe, the woman about whom I’d been reading when my doctor interrupted me. Even as Mary Anne prepared to leave this world, she remained concerned for those who would remain in it after her. She made her son Will, whose tender rendition of her last months and readings allowed me the grace of knowing of her, revise a blog he’d written to let family and friends know she didn’t have much time left.

She made him add the following, which was the last thing I read before talking with my doctor:

Mom watched Obama’s speech and was encouraged by it. She thinks he did an excellent job on the speech, and that it will help get us some kind of health reform this fall, which the country desperately needs.

Even at the end of her life, Mary Anne was busy advocating for others. She listened more than she talked, and encouraged those around her to listen more. It was hard for me not to think of her as I talked with my new doctor, who listens much more than she speaks.

“I’ve never had a doctor who really listened, you know? I just–it’s amazing,” I told her before we dived into discussing lab results. “I just wanted to say thank you.”

“Actually, that reminds me,” she replied. “Do you know, they did a study. You know how long, on average, it takes before a doctor interrupts her patient?”

I shook my head. “How long?”

“Eighteen seconds. Eighteen.”

My jaw dropped, but then, I wasn’t really surprised. Never before this doctor have I found a doctor who listened so keenly. During our first visit, she listened to me for fifteen minutes straight before she interjected with a question. Fifteen minutes. I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with anyone–medical professional or otherwise–who let me talk for fifteen minutes without interruption. I certainly haven’t afforded anyone that care.

I smiled through tears as I listened and drove. I thought of my preteen self, crying for someone she’d never meet and wishing he could have had more time. I thought of my new doctor, and how safe I feel when sitting with her. When we sit face to face, she is fully with me. It doesn’t matter that she has another patient to see after me, or another dozen after that, or that she’s working a long shift at the hospital this weekend. While she is with me, she is with me.

Attuned

Attuned

I thought of Mary Anne, and how safe other people must have felt in her presence, knowing they were with someone who tirelessly listened and heard. Even when she knew she had but days left, she listened.

My heart remained full throughout the day, straight through the moment when I picked up the book to read its last chapters. One passage in particular drove straight through my heart:

Why didn’t I say this thing or that thing? I’d had the perfect opportunity when discussing this book or that. Eventually I came to realize that the greatest gift of our book club was that it gave me time and opportunity to ask her things, not to tell her things.

A blog was brewing from the moment I heard “Candle in the Wind” in the car hours earlier, but those words cinched it. Those were the words I needed to read to tie it all together. To understand the call I felt.

On Friday, three things converged to bring me closer to understanding: a song, a doctor, and an avid reader I only met in the pages of her son’s book about their end of life book club.

I can write till my fingers fall off, and talk until I’m blue in the face. I can get it out as much as I want, but I will never be content if I’m not also letting it in. As much as I talk, I must also stop to listen. It is in listening–to a song, to the silence in someone else’s listening, to words of others’ joy or sorrow–that I will remember I am but a fragment of this beautiful world.

Observing

Observing

I want the people around me to feel as I do in my new doctor’s presence, and as Mary Anne’s friends must have felt in hers. I want to listen, and to hear. I want to remember what it was like the first time I understood, thanks to “Candle in the Wind,” that the world is much, much grander than my small part in it. More than that, I want to feel that. Constantly. Endlessly.

When I am gone, I want to be remembered not only for the words I spoke, but for the words those around me know I heard.

It will be challenging to change. It will take time–probably a lot of time.

I’m game. But enough about me.

Tell me about you.

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  1. February 24, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Having a doctor who truly listens to you and what’s going on in your life is a real blessing. I am blessed to have an internist whom I see every three months, a psychiatrist, a therapist, and a kidney specialist, who really seem to care about me as a person and have even asked me for advice on some issues. They care about what I’m doing in my “free time” and encourage me in my pursuits. They know more about what moves and drives me than my daughter does. I think they care more about me and my health than she does. Tey certainly know more about it. She rarely asks questions and then it’s only to criticize why they don’t do more to “fix” things that can’t be fixed. I feel blessed to have them in my life.

  2. February 24, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Deborah, The funny thing is that I feel like you’re listening to me when I read your words this morning. I don’t quite know how to explain that.

    I’ve read a review of The End of Your LIfe Book Club and was so moved by the description of the book and the selflessness of Mary Ann Schwalbe. Your words drive that home and make me want to stop everything and read it.

    Oddly enough, this morning they also make me inordinately proud of the philanthropic work I do for Lurie Children’s Hospital. When we lost my dad to cancer, I wanted somehow to give back, to follow his example, and maybe put my efforts toward finding a cure. But there was no charity that moved me. And, frankly, no part of his care that inspired me.

    Years later, I sat by daughter’s bedside in the PICU at the then-Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago. For 49 days, we prayed that the doctors would be able to extubate her and that she’d come home with us. (They did and she did.) We prayed that her heart defect would be the beginning and end of her medical difficulties. (It wasn’t, but so far it is the only life-threatening challenge we’ve faced.)

    When we went back to the hospital to have a g-tube placed, I melted as my 6-month old was taken from me, so small in the arms of the very tall anesthesiologist. After the surgery I sat by her bedside until she fell into a fitful sleep. Then I wandered the hospital halls wondering how I could give back to this extraordinary place that was giving my child to me. I passed by the office of one of the boards and by some strange coincidence, there was someone in it at 7 p.m. So I asked her, how do I give back? She directed me to the Children’s Service Board and I joined a month or so later.

    I believe the most meaningful work I’ve done in my life is with these extraordinary women. When we presented the hospital, now the Anne and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and always among the best in the country, with a check for $623,000 last week I swelled with pride.

    My daughter is healthy and thriving, and off skiing with my husband this weekend. Her heart defect gave me the opportunity to remember what has always mattered in my life–working heard to even the playing field and make sure that others have the opportunities we have. That means keeping Lurie Children’s Hospital strong so that it can continue to serve the poorest and worst-insured among us (we had a $90 million uninsured write off last year) with the same expertise and love that it serves kids like Charlotte.

    No one EVER listens to me for more than 15 minutes unless I’m in front of a lecture hall. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked teaching so much!

    Thanks for the opportunity to tell the story. The rest of Charlotte’s story is on my other blog, Charlottesjourneyhome.com. I hope you don’t mind the plug!

    Enough about me….next up….

  3. February 24, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Beautiful post, Deb. I remember learning about Ryan White when I was a teenager, and I cried for him many times.
    I have a lot of work to do as a listener. I have ADD and am always afraid that my thoughts are going to escape me in conversation, so I have at tendency to interrupt people. While I know how rude that is, it still happens, I need to try harder to just listen. If I forget what I was going to say, it wasn’t that important to begin with, and surely not important enough to interrupt someone with.
    Glad to hear you have such a great doctor. They are such a rare breed these days.
    Love and light to you. xoxo

  4. Andrew
    February 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Amen Deb! This is something I am very guilty of–not listening properly. Too often we are so full of our own words that we don’t have room for those of others. I find myself waiting to speak, rather than listening. Advancing an argument, rather than taking a point. It’s a bad habit, that is for sure.

  5. E.L. Farris
    February 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Honest. This is one of the best things I’ve read. Smiling at you, Deb, as my family’s laughter rings in the background. What are they laughing about? Shaking my head. They’re singing songs about diarrhea. Yep.

  6. February 24, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Strange, I always think I am sitting in a room with you, that you hear my heart. I try to listen as much as I speak, sometimes are harder than others. Sometimes my brain kicks in and my heart shuts down and I want to scream, “shut up!”

    Then I remember, I am here and I survived not just to tell a story but to hear theirs and make them tell theirs and make them walk a different path for telling ours together. I can’t do that if I don’t listen as much as I speak. My heart calms down, even when it thunders.

    Have I told you, I love you for bringing light to small places hidden. I love you for reminding us of our humanity and caring enough to do so.

  7. February 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Great musings. I’ve finally found a doctor who listens, too. I’m so grateful, and glad to hear you are feeling nurtured, too.

  8. February 24, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Grat insights and caring, as usual from you! I do sense you listening as well as speaking through your blog and in the world. Listening and empathy–two skills, two art forms, that it would be great if we all could practice! Thanks for the reminder.

  9. February 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    “…the words those around me know I heard.” Yes, you listen!

  10. February 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Perhaps your doctor should be teaching medical students. There are so many who need to learn.

  11. February 25, 2013 at 6:25 am

    How wonderful that you found a doctor you like, who listens to you, and even better that you express that admiration. I, too, have a problem with listening as much as I should – excellent reminder.

  12. February 28, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Your post has reminded me of something I almost forgot…to listen, not just hear, but really truly listen. Be well, dear friend. xoxo

  13. March 1, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I was just talking to my Mom last night about doctors and she was telling me how she loves hers so because they listen.I was thinking at the time it was because she is a corker and probably can’t believe what comes out of her mouth but now you made me realize how blessed she is.Thank you for listening to us and reminding me how important a caring ear is.

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