By the time they died, both of my parents—long divorced—lived in very small worlds composed of immediate family and medical caregivers. My father was intensely gregarious, but his congestive heart failure landed him in the hospital the moment he arrived here in Reno. Because he spent almost the entire five months before his death in medical facilities, his social circle never widened beyond me and my husband.
My mother, meanwhile, had always been socially reserved. When she retired from her job in New Jersey and moved in with my sister in Philadelphia, she made very few efforts to meet new people or develop new interests. After years of fairly good health, she became housebound with dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and her only contacts beyond the orbit of family were home health care aides.
My sister and I mourned both situations. Dad never had the chance to make friends in his new home; Mom chose not to make friends in hers. We were frustrated and sad for them. Their loneliness, and their dependence on us, made their deaths especially poignant.
Last summer, my father’s birthday happened to fall on a day when I was moderating a Literature & Medicine discussion group at the Reno VA Hospital, where Dad had received his medical care. There was a new participant that night. She’d been one of his ICU nurses, and she remembered him vividly and fondly. She shared funny stories about how she’d bonded with him during the 2008 presidential campaign—Dad was a lifelong outspoken liberal—and told me that everyone who cared for him enjoyed his intelligence and spirit. “He was our favorite patient on the unit.” Her memories were a blessing to me, confirmation that despite my father’s seeming isolation, he had indeed made friends.
This past Valentine’s Day, I awoke with a lump in my throat. Mom had always given me and my sister cards and small gifts for the holiday, and although my father rolled his eyes at Hallmark sentimentalism, after he died I found a small plastic heart, emblazoned with the words “I Love You,” in one of his shirt pockets. I’ll never know how it got there.
I couldn’t spend too much time missing my parents, though, because I was giving a lecture about Narrative Medicine at our medical school that day. My single session is part of a year-long course on clinical reasoning in medicine. When I walked into the classroom, the new course coordinator, who’s also a community physician, introduced himself to me. “I was one of your father’s doctors at the VA. Do you remember that?”
I didn’t remember. I was astonished that the doctor remembered, since he’d treated Dad only briefly four years earlier. “I remember him well,” the doctor said. “It was a very difficult case for me, because your father was so sharp mentally, but his physical condition was so poor, and there was so little we could do to help him.”
When I got home that afternoon, I called my sister to tell her the story. “That’s funny,” she said, “because I’d just gotten home from work today and parked in front of the house when one of Mom’s home health care aides came over to say hello. She’s been taking care of someone across the street, and she told me that she thinks about us and Mom all the time. She kept wanting to come over and ask how we were doing, but today’s the first day she’s seen me.”
There are many lessons here: about the importance of patient relationships with medical providers, especially when those providers are the majority of their human contacts; about how much a few kind words from these providers can mean to family; about how providers themselves grieve when patients die. But for me, these three incidents—this trinity of memory—recalls another trinity: the God I worship and follow, who exists in relationship, who created humans to live in relationship, and whose love reaches us in unexpected ways even when we seem most isolated.