Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Reflex.

This morning, I woke up to the laughter of my children. The sun was shining and my heart was light. I loved on my boys for a few moments, turned on "The Electric Company" and my coffee maker, and then made the boys some breakfast while simultaneously cleaning up the kitchen that I hadn't felt like dealing with the night before. It was so perfectly mundane that I felt myself basking in it while scrubbing a pan in the sink. I smiled and savored it.

Shortly after that, I sat down to send an email to my friend Tasia G.'s son Omar who just finished 5th grade. He earned all 'A's and received countless citizenship awards. I loved the idea of an eleven year old receiving an unexpected congratulatory email from an adult. He is a great kid, and his parents are great people, so I wanted to tell him so. Sending that email felt good, too. I smiled again. Yes, this was a good day.

As the children chattered at the kitchen table about pancakes and swimming pools, I watched them and again allowed myself to be present in this every day moment. When Isaiah cleared his plate, he came and wrapped his arms around me saying, "You know, Mom? I really love you." And I looked back at him and said, "And you know, Isaiah? I really love you, too." Then he hugged me tight and I hugged him back, kissing the top of his head hard and deliberate.

"Mom?" he asked with his nose wrinkled, "Why do you always have to kiss me every time you hug me?"

I thought for a second and laughed. Then I said, "It's a reflex."

And he said, "What's a reflex?"

And I said, "It's something you can't help doing no matter how hard you try."

About twenty minutes after that conversation, my friend and fellow Grady doctor, Neil W., sent me a text message telling me that one of my F.P.'s had passed away this morning. "I knew you'd want to know," the text read, "I'm sorry to bother you so early on a Sunday."

And just like that, reflexively I cried. Quietly with my back turned in my kitchen with the third episode of "The Electric Company" playing behind me belting out over and over "It's electric!"

I'm waiting for this point to come where hearing this kind of news doesn't affect me in the deepest parts of my soul. I am waiting for enough years to pass where I don't ball my fist up and press it against my chest while tapping my foot. I remember how people would always tell us as interns that you have to detach yourself a little or else you'll go crazy. Hmmm.

This morning I am thinking that perhaps this kind of reaction is like trying to hug Isaiah without kissing him. It's a reflex. Kind of like waking up and seeing a sun shining and hearing your kids laughing and thanking God for it. Something I can't help doing no matter how hard I try.

This patient taught me one of the most beautiful lessons I have ever known:

"If you're lucky, everything you do is in the context of love."

Today, things as uneventful as turning on "The Electric Company," making pancakes, and sending an email were all done in the context of love. Crying about the passing of this very special patient was, too. Maybe because she was trying to teach me to make love a reflex. . . . .

Hmmm. I just thought of something--the last two words she ever said to me were these:

"Love you."

How apropos. Damn. Now I'm crying again. But that's okay, because I know it's only a reflex.

Happy Sunday.


  1. You are an embodiment of everything that is beautiful and amazing in this imperfect (medical and non-medical) world. I hope you become even more contagious, beyond your students and current readers of your blog, and spread like a pandemic of kindness, goodness, benevolence, compassion, empathy and true nobility of spirit.

    P.S. Sorry if I sound like I'm always "gushing" like a groupie. I respect and admire the person I have come to know through your blog. It makes me genuinely happy that you exist in this world, even if we never meet in person, and I want to share that happiness with you. I never want to miss an opportunity to tell someone that who they are or what they say or do really matters.

  2. You know what I love? That someone I never, ever would have met has now influenced my life. Thank-you for sharing your patients and what you learn from them. Thank-you for still crying when a FP dies. You are human and crying is your right, whether it is a reflex or not.

  3. Ms. Zebedee taught me, too. She had a big, big reach. Thank you for bringing me to her, for allowing us to know her. I am so sorry for your loss, for all our loss. But I am also profoundly grateful that she was here.

    Hold your babies tight. As you always do.

  4. Hugging you from here.
    (Another reflex.)

  5. I struggle with this all the time. Sometimes I wonder if I let things get to me too much. Its hard though because you see the humanity and the vulnerability in people in a way that you just don't get to outside of the hospital. It makes you all the more grateful for those mundane moments that are usually taken for granted.

  6. Reading about your children and the reflex of a hug and a kiss, they do just go hand and hand. Tears and the ache of loss is the same reflex that tugs our hearts. Your patient was wise and what a lasting gift to have shared...and passed on ...

  7. There is part of me that wants my oncologists and cardiologists to be affected by my death. We have been together for a long time and I truly want them to care. The other part of me hopes that they understand that they gave me the time that I truly desired, the time to raise my children and see them securely on their way into adulthood. Without seeming to be suicidal or morbid, I don't know how to tell them that I am at peace with whatever time I have left and am grateful to them because I feel I have accomplished my mission. I want them to feel my gratitude, not sorrow.

  8. Anush-- Yes, flowers are for the living. I thank you for these flowers.

    Ms. Moon-- Isn't that a beautiful thing?

    Angella -- You always remind me to hold my babies tight. Thanks for that.

    Lisa aka FBH -- Feel that hug.

    Andi -- You should totally do it! Can't wait to hear of your F.P.s in the VA. Lots of FPs there, I'm sure.

    Ellen -- Love is good reflex, no?

    Emmy-- Sorrow is not the word for it. It is more gratefulness and respect for life and the gifts people share when they are here. And wishing we could have just one more serving of it, you know? Not sorrow, really. I get that it was her time, but I will miss her and I feel honored that I got to meet her as I am sure your doctors feel about you. But not sorrowful . . no.

    Your words are beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  9. They say that tears are an overflowing heart. Your kisses and your tears are one and the same. :)


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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