|“Happy Memories” by Ekaterina Chingilidi. 2014. Published with Permission.
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
Patients had mostly become faceless for me. I had treated and discharged so many of them as a resident that I seemed to have a job on an assembly line. Dealing with patients was simply my job; I felt no other connection. That perception was about to be changed by a thin elderly lady who was reading by the window in the neurology ward, holding a newspaper close to her face so she could see with her one good eye.
“Good morning! My name is Doctor Olga. I will be your physician in charge. Your name is Anna, right? Please tell me about your complaints.” She told me about the pain in her spine and bones and difficulty walking. She had already undergone six operations in her life, including two for cancer. I worried about metastases; this idea bothered me since I was already starting to like her. She looked so much like my grandmother, and there was something magnetic in her that I could not quite describe. I felt like I was sitting next to a big encyclopedia and wanted to explore it. Although she tried to hide it, her expression and body language revealed the extent of her pain. I wanted to believe she had a treatable problem such as a herniated vertebral disk, but my heart clenched as I ordered an urgent thoracic and lumbar MRI. I waited anxiously and hoped I would be able to give her some good news. There were no protruding or herniated disks, but metastases in nearly the entire thoracic and lumbar spine. My only question was, “How am I going to tell her about this?”
I recruited my will power and went to see her with a poker face. I wished I could speak to her from a distance. I asked her if she had any children. In a sad but restrained voice, she said that her only child had died at the age of one year and that her husband had been hit and killed by a car two years later. She did not marry again and was now alone in her town and in her life. To my surprise, she accepted the news of her diagnosis with relief. She now had a road that would reunite her with her beloved family.
I remained with her to speak about her condition, but we talked about her life instead. Anna had been born into a family of bakers in a small town. She skipped over sad memories and talked about happier ones instead, the glory days of her youth. She had charmed her future husband by filling in for a piano player one night at a music club, even though she had always been too humble to play in front of other people. At the end of the night, her future husband gave her a bouquet of wildflowers, the beginning of a love story that unfortunately did not last long. After her child and husband died, Anna thought about suicide. But one day she saw a group of street children playing outside. Having lost her own child, she decided to take care of other people’s children. She devoted forty years of her life to children, watching them grow up in her small town. All grandmothers love talking, but not all of them tell their stories in a skillful way, like a true novelist. I wanted to listen and listen again!
Anna was soon transferred to the oncology department. I could not part from her, and so every day I stopped to talk to her. Unfortunately, time was limited. Other patients were waiting for me, but no one was waiting for her. I noticed that her wrinkles smoothed and she smiled during our conversations. At that point the only thing I could do was to speak to her. An entire month passed, and during that time I came to learn so much about her that it seemed I had known her all my life. Hers were the stories of a strong woman’s life. I even began asking for advice. She never answered directly. For every question, she had a story, which made the answer more interesting and mysterious. After Anna’s stories, my thoughts and feelings seemed to fall into place. There was an answer for every question, and for every problem, a solution.
One story that especially stood out was when she talked about gingerbread cookies. Her mother baked them when she was a child, and Anna and her sister played with them since they had no toys. She said this with great sorrow; tears were rolling down her face. “I would so much like to taste those gingerbread cookies again…”
It may sound silly, but the goal of my existence became to search for gingerbread. I ran around to all the candy stores in my area but could not find any. When I found recipes online, I immediately started baking them. I wanted to surprise Anna! Three fine gingerbread cookies with icing were gently sealed into a package. The next day I planned to take them to Anna, and I hoped to see her smile.
The next morning I did rounds in our department like always, before I could finally stop and see Anna. I went to her ward with the gingerbread but there was another woman in the bed. I apologized and ran to the physician in charge. My heart was beating at a bullet speed. My worries were justified; Anna had died. I attended her funeral and gave her the gingerbread cookies anyway; unfortunately, I could not see her smile.
Dr. Seuss said, “Do not cry because it’s over, smile because it was.” Sometimes complete strangers can change our inner selves and make us better people. Anna taught me to appreciate the little things of life, to feel joyful, to be friendly, to love, and, of course, to bake delicious gingerbread cookies! I hope that I, too, may affect other people’s lives the way Anna affected mine.
OLGA DIGANCHINA, is a resident of the 2nd year of training in the specialty “Neurology including children,” University Medical Center in Astana, Kazakhstan.