Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 2, 2002
The Woman in the Next Room
I awake at 4:00 a.m. For a few seconds I am only aware of the heat, of sweating. Too hot. That is why I have wakened. Throw off the extra blanket, turn and settle like a dog circling. Find just the right shape to fold into to pass back through the door to peace. No fit. This way, that way. There is still the tension in my bones of unspoken sorrow, of unshared grief. For an hour or two I work at resting. This way, that way. As I wrestle in the dark in my bedclothes, the day dawns upon me. The day past. The day ahead. The endless struggle of days. The memories come creeping, howling at my window, causing my heart to beat fast and alone. Alone in the dark, regret bays at my window.
This business of doctoring, of diagnosing and treating illness seems to be a two-fold trial. Take the history, examine the patient, know your anatomy: slowly progressive equals tumor, acute onset equals stroke, relapsing remitting equals inflammatory/autoimmune. Fill out the requisition; shake the patient’s hand. Answer the phone call.
“Mrs. Smith, your MRI was normal. No, I’m not sure why you are having numbness, but it can’t be serious.”
Questions hang in the space between you. Fill it with empty assurances; bridge the gap with platitudes. Struggle to find, to touch, to grasp the cause of imperfection. To name it, then to repair it. This is our goal, and yet it is so often out of reach. So much to know. So much to do. Listen, think, look, read, review, think again. Search, speak, wonder, worry. So much to do and still the patient is sick.
I live beside this life of work, study, thought, and analysis. I live in another room where the sounds of my work ring clear and cold, where I can hear them but not touch them. The voices in the next room march interminably on. I listen to the spoken sorrows, back pain, breathlessness, paralysis, palpitation. I listen to the sorrow spoken and the unsatisfactory answers. As I sit alone in the next room, my heart aches with the lonely distance between those two in the next room.
The physician removes herself, keeps a cool professional distance. The woman in the next room wraps herself around the anguished patient, touches him, holds him, suffers. The physician knows the condition is terminal, knows the only course of action. The woman looks into the patient’s eyes begging forgiveness. The physician states the prognosis, offers alternatives, and advises. The woman prays, "Dear God, take him, hold him, comfort him. Open his eyes to paradise. Touch and heal him, touch and heal. Let him live." The physician notes little hope for recovery. The woman falls on her knees and weeps.
The day has finally dawned gray. Snow falls. I throw back my blankets; they are sleepier than I. The children are still asleep, just murmuring their last minute dreams before the day bursts upon them. I shuffle to the shower, looking forward to its caress. A moment’s warmth. All too soon this counterfeit day begins. The children hurried to the bus, the physician dressed, the march begun. The physician dressed in white and full of authority. The woman in the next room, alone and listening.