By Conor McDonald
Preclinical Winner, Writing Competition 2017
Prompt 2: Tell us about an encounter with a patient that has significantly shaped your understanding of medical practice or changed your worldview.
My wife, Margie, sat to my left as we ate our dinner. A few grey strands peaked through her long dark hair. She had brown eyes and she was beautiful. Next to her was our 5-year-old son George. He looked a lot like me. Blonde hair, blue eyes and a chubby face with flushed cheeks. Our family filled me with pride. Whilst the ‘energy saving’ lights my wife had begged me to get made me feel like I was in a hospital – a place for the sick and dying – we managed to bring life to our cosy little home.
After dinner I lead George upstairs to begin our night’s reading. I tuck him in and grab tonight’s book, The Myth of Sisyphus, ignoring a tightness in my head. I remind George that Sisyphus was a Greek king who angered the gods by cheating death. For this, he was sentenced to an eternity in a world where he had to roll a large rock up a mountain, using all his strength, once he reached the top, the stone would fall back to the bottom and the process would repeat. Forever. The Gods had thought there was no more dreadful punishment than hopeless labour. My head thumped. Looking back down at the page, it was blank except for one line: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I began explaining to George what this meant. That no matter how boring or monotonous life seemed, as long as we found meaning and purpose in it we would remain happy. I had family. Sisyphus had a rock. The room was swirling, the ringing in my ears intensified. I felt nauseous. Then nothing, the world became dark.
Living in the outer suburbs enabled us to live a comfortable life. It also meant I spent much of my time driving. We lived close to a freeway so much of this time was spent on long, straight roads with little scenery. To pass time, I liked to listen to music, while picking out phrases which resonated with me. I was no philosopher, but it stopped me from feeling like I was as mindless as the average man driving to work.
Traffic made me feel like Sisyphus. Aimlessly driving for what felt like an eternity only to do the same thing 10 hours later and then repeat the process the following day. I felt the same way shaving, I would painstakingly remove the shadow that appeared on my face every night to look presentable but by the same time the following day the shadow would return. Making the bed was worse. These things made me feel stagnant, unmoving. It’s not that I was unhappy, I managed to find solace in the notion that my family was happy, I just struggled to accept the mundaneness of social norms. However, whilst I wasn’t brave enough to differ from these norms, I was arrogant enough to think that I could see the folly in them. Lost in thought I put on ‘Jesus of the Moon’ by Nick Cave. “Because people often talk of being scared of change. But for me I’m more afraid of things staying the same. Cause the game is never won by standing in one place for too long’.
A memory; sitting in a bright room in a large weatherboard house. A family holiday by the coast. A pressure in my head. I’d had an argument with Margaret but I couldn’t remember why. It was trivial but trifles bothered me. I’d read about the theory of ‘eternal return’ in which the universe, due to the infinite nature of time, is said to have occurred before and will continue to occur again and again for eternity. I thought of it like a puzzle, we are all made up of matter, pieces of the puzzle, and there is a finite amount of this matter in existence. Because time is infinite, these puzzle pieces have to recombine in the exact same way again, and again. It was intriguing but unnerving. It meant that though in isolation the fight I had with Margaret was trivial, it was due to occur over and over for the rest of eternity. This troubled me immensely. I would make her upset over nothing forever. That night we read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. One passage stood out: “if every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus is nailed to the cross. A terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return, the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make”.
I was in a bad mood today. We read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Woolf. I didn’t want to disrespect my thoughts, my humanity, by attempting to make myself feel better. If I took away the melancholy, I discredited my ability to respond emotionally to situations. I read the passage on the page: “Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”
I drive recklessly, especially when I am tired. I just want to get home and be with my family. I read the billboards “a 20-minute powernap could save your life”, which I immediately disregarded. Those signs are aimed at the average punter, not me. Home with George, reading and eating spaghetti; my mind drifted as my lids grew heavy, car rumbling as I drift over the median strips in the middle of the road. I recall a song playing on the radio: “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying, look at me now”. Look at me now.
I often thought about the way movement affected time. I found it interesting that people often said being busy ‘makes time fly’. While this is partially true, doing nothing does make the present feel drawn out, when you do nothing for long periods of time, it reduces these time periods to almost nothing. You see, we measure time by changes in our life, movement. When we stop moving, we lose time.
A soft beep pierced through my thoughts “Good morning Mr Shannon, time for breakfast and happy birthday,” I heard someone call. A nurse. I feel liquid being pushed into my stomach. A daily ritual. My wife stopped visiting a few birthdays ago, it was for the best. Her sobbing and my son’s bored sighs were insufferable. The living should stay away from hospitals. I heard them tell her of my condition, I would never “wake up”. I wasn’t even sure if she was my wife anymore. All I wanted was to cut myself adrift, be taken by the lightness of endless dreams but I was bound to this existence by life itself, the wonders of modern medicine and hissing machines. I was broken. Thoughts and memories were all I had. I was Sisyphus without a rock, an endless traffic jam, time without motion. This was my eternity. Pain is endless pain.
Feature image by Ian Norman at Lonely Speck.