Confession: I am your quintessential hopeless romantic. I like to believe that a perfect love exists for everyone. Although I have yet to find true love myself, I look for love everywhere I go, and in all that I do. It is what brings me joy and gives me the space I need to feel safe.
One night, a few years back, I had an unexpected lesson in love. I had been assigned to care for a cancer patient who had underwent an extensive operation on his face and airway. As I walked by his room, time seemed to stand still. The room was dark and there were no visitors around. I caught a glimpse of a frail, elderly man in the light and it took my breath away. His arms and legs were elevated on clouds of pillows. His swollen face was wrapped tightly in gauze, leaving his lips, puffy cheeks, and piercing eyes pronounced. His face was asymmetrical and disfigured, and he was breathing through a hole in his neck. The only noise coming from the room was the constant purring of the respiratory equipment.
I remember feeling so scared to care for him that shift because I felt so inadequate. I have never know what it feels like to wake up and not be able to recognize myself in the mirror. Or breathe through an artificial airway. Or be so vulnerable and dependent upon others. I had taken care of other patients like him before, but there was something striking about him.
The moment I walked into his room, I was immediately greeted with the faintest smile that he could push through the tight bandages. He looked so uncomfortable, yet he had a calming gentleness about him. I came to his bedside, touched his hand, and introduced myself. He picked up the dry erase board sitting on his lap and began writing his introduction. As he wrote, my eyes were drawn to the lower right hand corner. Tucked in the molding was a torn and faded black and white photo. It was a head-shot of a woman probably in her twenties. She had a bright smile, dark loosely curled hair, and perfect lipstick. I smiled inside. I was sure this was the love of his life.
Perhaps it is the fact that I have yet to find that person in my own life, but I am always curious about how people find love. I love to hear their stories. It gives me hope that true love exists. I have also come to know how much strength and purpose comes from love. I immediately asked him about the woman, and his eyes widened with the lift of his brows. In a slanted cursive he wrote, “she is waiting for me in heaven”. I began to ask more. He told that they had been married for decades, had a handful of children and grandchildren, and that he missed her every single day. What I was not expecting, was the conversation that followed.
Tears began to form in his eyes. His wrinkled and bruised hands continued to scribble away. He expressed that he had only elected to have this lengthy procedure done for the sake of his family. He didn’t want his children and grandchildren to think that he had given up. Even though he knew his love was eagerly waiting for him in heaven, he felt an enormous duty to try every single medical option.
I had never thought of my patients in this light before. I always assumed that people chose their medical journeys based on their own individual wishes. In retrospect, I cannot believe the naivety of my thinking. Every single one of us can think of a time in which we made a decision to please others. Healthcare was clearly not exempt.
I began to think of the tremendous physical and emotional pain that this man endured with this surgery. The love and sacrifice that he demonstrated was beyond measure. The type of cancer that he suffered from has a known high recurrence rate and required further aggressive treatment. Surgery was just the first part.
I don’t know what happened to him beyond that shift, but what I do know is that he taught me a lesson in selfless love. He embodied the fact that when we love others deeply, we are willing to go to any length to see their happiness. It’s absolutely beautiful but unmistakably painful at the same time.
Love is powerful, and just as much as we need to show it to others, we must be able to show it to ourselves. His story highlights the importance of having candid conversations about our health with our loved ones. We must examine who we are setting out to please. Ourselves, or others. We should never be afraid to chose the option that shows the greatest love and respect for ourselves. This is not to say that making a decision that is rooted in our own individual preferences is equal to giving up, because it is not. There is a certain dignity in being able to step back and recognize that quality of life can be much more fulfilling than quantity of life.
It’s been years since I met this sweet man, but something tells me that he has been reunited with that elegant woman in the black and white photo. That night, I learned a powerful lesson in love that has since taken refuge in my heart.
My heart is happy knowing that love transcends space and time, and I can’t wait to find a love that is equally beautiful.