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Monday Afternoons

This afternoon I went to see a new patient who was admitted over the weekend. She was in her eighties and dying in a nursing home. That was pretty much all I knew. I had received a voice mail from my supervisor telling me that the patient’s family was struggling with the impending loss and was not able to be bedside during the day and could I please go out to see the patient.

So around noon, I drove in Greg’s little green Honda to a nondescript nursing home in a nondescript Illinois suburb. Inside I was directed to the third floor and on my way to the patient’s room the elevator doors opened onto a view of the nursing station, around which were seated in wheelchairs over a dozen of the home’s residents, most of them nodding their heads in slumber or simply staring, open-mouthed, at an undetermined horizon. Muzak tinkled out over the scene from speakers in the ceiling.

I quietly walked past all of them and down a hallway where I found my patient unconscious and unresponsive and alone in her nondescript room. She was dying and her breath rattled with each rise and fall of her lungs.

I took off my coat and put down my purse and I pulled up a chair and I simply sat with her. I looked at her face and I gently placed my hand on her arm and I wondered at the kind of life she had led. I wondered who she loved, who she cared for. I wondered what the best day she ever had was and I wondered what moment in her life she was most proud of. I looked at the wrinkles in her forehead and the curve of her lips and I tried to imagine what her smile was like and what the exact moment was in her life was in which she felt most loved.

After a while I just closed my eyes and breathed in and out. Just being.

We are not these bodies.

I’ll say it again. We are not these bodies.


  1. A beautiful, beautiful, post. Thank you Claire.

    Comment by nancy on March 24, 2008 at 7:59 pm

  2. and yet…we are. we are these bodies and we are these brains, and as they go, who we are changes, and as they go, who we are goes too. my mother’s brain is going and so is “who she is”. she will always be my mother, biologically, but i have been thinking about who she will be when who “I” am no longer has meaning to her.emotionally, what happens to the relationship?
    the woman you were with, her dying body, that doesn’t change who she WAS, but to me, that is who she IS now…a dying woman, but a woman nonetheless whose dying body could still register the gentle touch of your hand on her arm and the impact of your breath in the room.

    Comment by tony d on March 26, 2008 at 12:58 pm

  3. ::hugs:: to tony d. i can’t even imagine; nor do i want to. i hope your touch still means something to your mom, no matter what.

    Comment by RzDrms on March 26, 2008 at 8:48 pm

  4. I cared for my grandmother through two years of physically and mentally debilitating illness up until she passed away. I’m delurking tonight to tell you that what you have said here, it resonates, it really, truly does. It took me a very long time to understand what you have said here with some measure of acceptance, without panic. Thank you for this post and thank you for putting it so beautifully.

    Comment by debbie on March 27, 2008 at 8:24 pm

  5. Wow, thank you for all sharing such lovely and personal insights. Tony, as always, your comments are so thought-provoking and humbling. You’re right on all counts. Who we are changes.
    Debbie, it took me time as well. A long time.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on March 28, 2008 at 9:39 am

  6. Thanks Claire…these days your words mean more than I could ever explain. It’s such a comfort to know that I have a friend who understands my thoughts more than even I do.

    Comment by kristin on April 24, 2008 at 1:09 am

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