There’s no better time of year to read a book about death—and America’s stubborn unpreparedness to care for its aging population— than fall. As John Oliver said in his comedic diatribe on seasonal pumpkin-spiced lattes, which don’t actually have any pumpkin in them:
Just about anything that reminds us of autumn is a better flavor than pumpkin spice… [I’d personally rather drink] ‘a keen awareness of my own mortality’-spiced latte, because that’s what foliage is!
Indeed. As I discussed in From Glaciers to Icebergs, my children mourn the loss of the leaves. Each year, they react to the changing colors with a little less sadness, but the wistfulness this season inspires may never go away completely—at least it never did for me.
With this mindset, while sipping tea (not a pumpkin-spice latte!), I picked up Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I read the first 30% of it at Chanticleer, which is currently displaying a poignant assortment of chlorophyll-depleted leaves.
Next week, I’ll write a more thorough post on this sobering piece of nonfiction. For now, I want to focus on Gawande’s description of how well his medical education prepared him to address the inevitable end of his patients’ lives:
I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them… The one time I remember discussing mortality was during an hour we spent on The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy’s classic novella…The late-nineteenth-century Russia of Tolstoy’s story seemed harsh and almost primitive to us… [W]e put Ivan Ilyich out of our heads.
It’s interesting that medical schools would use fiction to train future doctors about real-life, a fact that only reminds me of how important it is for writers of this literature to experience and observe the real world themselves before committing those “truths” to paper.
However, as powerful and insightful as literature can be, an hour spent on Tolstoy’s novella is hardly enough to train medical professionals to handle the challenges their aging patients will face (to the extent anyone can be “trained” to handle it well).
This is how Gawande describes the way he and his colleagues confronted death:
The first times, some cry. Some shut down. Some hardly notice. When I saw my first deaths, I was too guarded to cry. But I dreamt about them. I had recurring nightmares in which I’d find my patients’ corpses in my house—in my own bed.
Sometimes I consider myself lucky because I don’t remember my dreams—particularly when Gawande’s book is among my bedtime reading.
Not all books about death are depressing, though, or so Mr. A.M.B. tells me. The book he was reading at Chanticleer, Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun, a psychiatry book about “overcoming the terror of death,” was far more uplifting. I’ll write more about that next week, too.
*In case you’re interested, here’s an article on research into why some people remember dreams better than others do.
*The pictures are from Chanticleer (October 2014).