It is early morning at the cancer hospital, the last place I want to be today. Scents of coffee, disinfectant, something vaguely reminiscent of breakfast—it all feels overwhelming. Trailing behind the internal medicine team, I’m barely keeping up on our way to the day’s inaugural patient. Once we reach the room, the attending turns and informs us of this patient’s prognosis, six less-than-cheerful words: “There’s nothing more we can do.”
“How are you feeling today?” the attending inquires as we enter the room. Bright red hands resting atop the hospital-issue knit blanket, the patient sighs an “okay” between labored breaths. His wife thinks he is a little better than yesterday. Sitting on a cot beside his bed, she embodies the gentle courage of an intimate-partner-turned-caregiver. The attending assures the patient that several other doctors will come by to see him today. Then we leave. We on the internal medicine team do not have the privilege of informing this patient of his six-word status.
Over at the workstation computers, my gaze keeps flitting back to the patient’s room. I watch as the infectious disease, oncology, and, finally, palliative care teams file in, deliver their payloads, then file out again. While I’m trying my best to be a good pre-doctor wallflower, a deep ache is rising in me like the tickle before a sneeze. Life’s fragility is excruciatingly blatant at the cancer hospital, a reminder that feels like sea water on a fresh cut.
One week prior, I’d awoken to a call that my grandfather, my Opa, had passed away. Age stole his optic discs, and the red traffic light he saw too late stole him from us. Our last conversation had been exactly one month before—he called on my birthday and cried for joy when I told him I’d visit him in Boston in the summer. The days following my grandfather’s death were shrouded in a haze of confusion, dissociation, and pain. Studying felt irreverent. Grieving felt irresponsible.
Standing now in a hospital with death so relentlessly tangible, sorrow’s knife is twisting deep into my heart. Opa died alone in a room like one of these. Only the nurse who cared for him at the end heard his final words: “I’ve lived a good life.” No one knew his six-word status until it was too late—too late to gather; too late to affirm not just a good life, but a wonderfully stubborn and courageous life; too late to say “I love you” one last time.
Through the patient’s doorway, I catch a glimpse of his wife straightening the corner of his blanket. Perhaps she is already grieving, maybe for months or maybe just for the last five minutes, but we are enveloped in the same fog; there is kinship in loss. The strongest urge to rush in and hug her comes over me, but I stay where I am for fear of intruding on her faithful ministrations. It is enough to stand here in silent community.
Later that evening, in the safety of my bedroom, I watch sunset paint the sky as red as the hands of today’s first patient. I let my tears fall for all the things I didn’t say, all the love I never shared, all the future memories now forsaken. At once breaking apart and mending, my heart is resurrecting from ashes, for pain is the gatekeeper of restoration. This is the thing about love, that we can only truly know it when we’ve seen it transcend mortality. All along it is beautiful, and it is so hard.