Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Trip to Cuba Over the Beautiful Blue Sea

About a week and a half ago, after I was in bed for the night I got a call from my best friend when I was 13, Mark. I saw it was him, but didn't pick up, since I had to get up at 4 a.m. I meant to text him from work but discovered his info had vanished from my phone, so the following day, after retrieving his info, I texted to ask if everything was OK.

He is my friend who lost his father and both of his brothers—his only siblings—in the course of several months a few years ago. One brother was 55 and the other was 54. That Mark hadn't left a message made me wonder if something terrible had happened—if perhaps he had lost his wife.

But after texting him, I got a voice mail from his wife saying that it was Mark who had died, suddenly, of a heart attack. I called her and she told me they had had a party to celebrate their youngest daughter's graduation from college. Mark turned in at 1:30 a.m. or so. His wife saw their remaining guests off and fell asleep on the couch. When she joined Mark at 5 a.m., he was gone, at 55 years old. None of the brothers made it to 56.

The next day was kind of crappy. I'm sure the pall of Mark's death was hanging over me as I walked to County Hospital for my shift, where I felt tired and bemused. I had 11 visits with patients, a record number, which mainly meant that I had a lot of charting to do, which is done by hand there, and that the visits were short and perfunctory. Afterward I had pupusas with a fellow volunteer, but even that wasn't fun. I just wanted to come home and sit in my comfortable chair and drink tea and read The New Yorker.

My prior shift at County Hospital, I visited just three patients, and all three visits were long and satisfying. One challenge there is that most rooms don't have chairs for a guest to sit in, though some do. I hate standing over people who are lying in bed, and I also hate walking all over the unit looking for a chair which has to be returned later. I think I'm going to buy a sturdy little folding stool to carry around with me, which I understand another volunteer does.

The night after my 11-visit shift, I didn't set my alarm, and slept for a restorative eleven and a half hours. I dreamed of flying to Cuba in a small airplane over a beautiful blue sea. In Cuba, I hung out with some theater people who were singing songs, and part of the dream was also lucid, when I was trying to send a text message and realized I was dreaming.

I continued to feel kind of lousy for a day or two and realized I really needed to get to Howie's. Spiritual sustenance is going out, to the best of my ability, but not coming in. I almost never went to Howie's during CPE and looked forward to being a regular again once CPE was over, but now I nearly always am working on that night of the week. I discussed swapping work days with the other per diem, but that didn't work out, so for now, I will just have to attend a different meditation group.

During my one-on-one with my boss last week, I mentioned that a certain patient had lied to me, as I discovered when I looked at her chart some days later. My boss asked why I had looked at her chart, and I didn't really have a good answer for that. The true answer is simply that I was curious, which I didn't say. My boss advised me to do my best, and then let patients go.

When I was in CPE there in 2016 and throughout my yearlong internship, I always maintained an electronic list called Patients I Have Seen. Often I would review it in the morning, just to see who was still in the hospital and if anyone had died. If I needed or wanted to see one of those patients again, it was easy to find his or her record. I also made myself such a list when I got this job, but after talking with my boss, I deleted it, and will see how life is without it. If there's really a good reason to have it, I can always make another one.

I also had at home a nice-looking little pad of paper where I wrote the names of patients who were especially important to me, but I got rid of that, too. If a patient is meaningful enough that he or she spontaneously comes back to mind, fine. If not, having a means of remembering former patients is just more psychological baggage, more unnecessary weight. I'm now starting to think about getting rid of my journal. I might start by discarding one page or a whole year and see how it is.

My mother says she's started to get rid of things because she has reached the age she was saving them for and sees that she has no need of them. I'm not still going up, up, up, gathering more and more and more. I'm on the other side of the hill now. I'm coming down. Things are going away, most recently Mark.

This quote keeps coming back to me: "Apprentice yourself to the curve of your own disappearance." ~David Whyte

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