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
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.
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.
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.