An Open Letter to My Patient.
You fell asleep, stone drunk, while driving. We let you wake up after the surgeries and the skin grafts and the breathing tubes. You might remember me, but if not, I won’t be offended. There were so many of my kind and you might not be able to tell us apart.
Know that of your kind, for me, there was only you.
I won’t make pretenses of knowing you, teaching you, or changing you in any way. You were stubborn, irrational (who could be rational with all those tubes coming out of you when all we wanted was more tubes?), spiteful, and angry. But you gave me high fives, sometimes, and you let me talk you into things that you needed but couldn’t bear. A least until you couldn’t, anymore.
In one of my essays I called you my professor. I don’t think my actual professor understood – she scratched her head trying to decipher the name of the physician with your initials. I don’t think she understood that most learning takes place when the images of disease are chiseled into the mind by the gaze of the presently or nearly dying. You were ravaged by infection and by medicines and by machines and by us. Still, you kept teaching until you couldn’t, anymore.
I don’t know why you gave up, but I know the moment that it happened, because I was there. It took you another week to die after that, but when I saw you that day, you were already dead. You looked at to me and said “enough”, and I listened. Your body took some time to catch up to your soul – it isn’t easy for a body to give up living – but you truly couldn’t, anymore.
I miss you.
I cannot explain what I am feeling with any other words.
Although we spent a month together every day, I knew just enough about you to dislike you and revile your choices. And you knew just enough about me to curse me out sometimes. I don’t know why knowing of your death brought me to tears even as I was surrounded by others in your predicament, presently and nearly dying. I don’t even know why I asked the computer whether you were still living.
After going through a detailed inventory, it seems to me that a small beacon of my hope had attached itself to you during our month together. It has been missing for some time now, and I had wondered where it had gone. Unbeknownst to you, you had become to me a bearer of that hope that must be extinguished in all people. The hope of immortality, perpetual springtime, success against the odds. It’s not your fault (but I forgive you), that when you died, you took it with you. Your last lecture, a final lesson from you to me.
I wish to to convey my condolences and solemn gratitude to your family. With the institutional barriers of our age, I am too fearful to page through your records and find their address and then use it to send my letter. In the stead of a personal communication, this anonymous note stands as my last words to you, saying:
It was my deepest privilege to contribute to your care. I remain your student.