Socks and Defiant Fragility

I thought back to med school, when a patient had told me that she always wore her most expensive socks to the doctor’s office, so that when she was in a patient’s gown and shoeless, the doctor would see the socks and know she was a person of substance, to be treated with respect.

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air (p. 187). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This story makes me think about the socks I will wear to my next checkup. It is an apt representation of the struggle to maintain our identity, respectability, and humanity when being medically or otherwise analyzed and assessed.  If I were to choose a pair of socks to carry the burden of expressing my personality, which would it be? My colorful Frida Kahlo socks, dignified black socks, sporty pink lined ankle socks, lace-rimmed boot socks? What makes me, me? and how can I protect and show that I am more than my faulty body, thoughts or feelings? I love this patient’s resistance to being reduced to a medical chart and her insistence on presenting herself as a “person of substance” despite being sick, weak or broken. To know that I am fragile and substantive, or rather because I am fragile, I have meaning. The patient seems to say, “I wear socks as an expression of my defiant fragility. I confront my own exposure to the threat of meaninglessness with the best socks I have.” I find myself inspired by this small act of resistance.

In my training as a hospice volunteer, protecting a sense of choice for patients is paramount. Choice gives them/us, humanity. Choice gives them/us, personality. Choice makes the difference between suffering or confronting death. Hospice gives them/us, socks.

A while back when I was having a difficult time, my good friend K. gave me these socks, with the note “walk in love.” I think this will be my socks when defiant fragility is called for. It is good to have good friends.

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Right now, What is important to you?

My very wise for her years niece, Farah recommended I read this book by Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air, an account of his last days as a neurosurgeon, cancer patient, husband, son, father, writer and more.  The urgent search for meaning is palpable in his words and reminds us that an awareness of death makes us also aware of life. And, more importantly, what makes life worth living for each of us. Right now, what is important to you? Getting your garage clean, cooking dinner for your family, finishing a book, knitting a sweater, holding your loved ones hands, hugging your kids, paying the bills? An awareness of inevitable and unpredictable death limits abstraction and makes our search for meaning concrete, real and EMBODIED. How can I make meaning with the body, the life, the heart beat, the energy I have today?

Here is how Paul explains the struggle of meaning constrained by time:

The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air (pp. 160-161). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The terminally ill in body, intensely aware in mind show us the depth of human courage and reminds us what it means to be “fully alive.” Buddhist practices of death mediation or the yoga pose savasana (corpse pose) aim to invoke this mindful struggle for embodied, personal meaning that the terminally ill acutely suffer.

From the epilogue written by his wife, Lucy:

Relying on his own strength and the support of his family and community, Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would “overcome” or “beat” cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one. He cried on the day he was diagnosed. He cried while looking at a drawing we kept on the bathroom mirror that said, “I want to spend all the rest of my days here with you.” He cried on his last day in the operating room. He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted. Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air (pp. 219-220). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thank you for the recommendation, Farah.

Wishing you days full of purpose and meaning,

Hungryphil