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    Sunday, April 24, 2005

    Walking in the Shadow of Death: It's been hard to escape the inevitability of death these past few weeks. The news was full of constant reminders - from the passing of Terri Schiavo to that of Pope John Paul II. And for some reason, more than the usual number of my patients have been flirting with the grim reaper. Professional detachment is supposed to protect us from feeling too much, but it's hard not to feel weighed down by sadness when people you've cared for over the years die - even when it's expected and unavoidable. (I don't know how oncologists keep their sanity. They make their peace with it, I suppose.) Then, last week, death stepped closer when my last remaining grandparent died.

    It wasn't unexpected. My grandmother was 94, and spent the past several years in declining health. Still, it's hard to see a loved one go. Especially someone as loved as my grandmother. She was the center of my family's universe. She spent most of her life caring for others; so much so that I spent most of my childhood believing that she was a doctor. When my brother or I got sick, the first person my mother called was not the doctor, but Grandma. My aunts did the same with my cousins. She would arrive carrying her big black purse, much like the black bags doctors used to carry. She didn't have a stethoscope, but she had a thermometer and all sorts of home remedies in her bag. She'd examine us just like a doctor would, give my mom a diagnosis and recommend treatment. I don't think I ever had antibiotics for an ear infection - only ear drops from Grandma's black purse.

    She belonged to the last generation for whom nursing others was just a part of a woman's life. When she had her babies, the neighbor women would come and help. And when they had theirs, she returned the favor. They would do the same with illnesses. Those were the days before antibiotics, before intravenous therapy, even before hospitals in our small town. The doctor would come to the house, give his instructions to the neighbor women, and go on to his next patient in some other neighborhood. They didn't have visiting nurse services in those days, they just had good neighbors.

    Medicine changed. Doctors stopped coming to the patients. Professional nurses in hospitals replaced neighborhood women in bedrooms. But Grandma didn't change. She kept right on nursing her friends and relations. There was no limit to her capacity to give. If there was one over-riding philosophy of her life, it was that there was always room for one more person - whether it was a place at the table or a helping hand. Although she wasn't a particularly religious woman in the conventional sense - didn't go to church regularly, didn't read the Bible, didn't even belong to any particular religious denomination, and had a tendency to swear more than a proper lady would - she nevertheless lived an exmplary Christian life.

    A few days before she died, she told my aunt she was getting ready to "make that final trip," and she wondered aloud how many would come to her funeral. She would have been pleased. There were five generations of her family - including cousins removed once or twice. There were old neighbors, and the children of old neighbors. It was standing room only - a testament to the power of her love. If there's any justice in God's realm, then surely she's with the communion of saints.

    posted by Sydney on 4/24/2005 05:24:00 PM 0 comments


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