I never could understand why someone would sweeten their tea or coffee if they were drinking it with dessert. It seems so redundant! Contrasting the bitterness of the beverage with the sweetness of the dessert, and vice versa, is for me part of the pleasure. Nor are the two sensations all that separate. As I sip some tea after a bite of the brownie or other indulgence, the sweetness mixes into the flavor of the tea, and as I take my next bite, the tea in turn makes the treat less cloying.
My work with patients is like that sometimes. Today I saw an aunt untangling and combing her niece’s hair. Then I visited with a learned lady who told me her memories of living in Paris. “I got to see Edith Piaf, in a black dress, up on the stage all by herself. I was absolutely mesmerized.” And I in turn was entranced to hear of someone who had seen The Little Sparrow in person. Later in the day, I visited someone who was watching the news from her bed, all tucked in and motionless except for her face, making cynical commentary about the FBI and their role in connection with the suspect who was arrested for making bombs found in Elizabeth, Seaside Park, and Manhattan.
I had all these encounters with people doing ordinary things: relating memories, combing hair, and acting as experts about the latest news, but all against the bitter backdrop that death could very well be around the corner. Combing hair is so ordinary, but becomes so poignant in the context of hospice because I know not many combings may be left for the niece. Was the aunt thinking about the tragedy of her niece preceding her in death? Or was she purely engrossed in the moment, pulling out “all these darn snags”?
Death’s proximity gives a bracing quality to the ordinary, and being engaged in the ordinary postpones the bitterness of contemplating death .