Photo source: flickr / jfcherry
“I’m past my use-by date,” Mala says, dragging her walker along behind her as if it were an old dog.
She is all of 5 feet tall, with fiery blue eyes and perfectly manicured nails. She lives alone, surrounded by shelves straining under the weight of hundreds of dusty books. She survived Auschwitz, has outlived three husbands and turns ninety-six this month. Every Wednesday afternoon she comes to the clinic, always bringing a joke along to tell me.
“Did you hear the one about the man who goes to the rabbi to complain that he can’t pee anymore? The rabbi asks him his age and he says ninety-nine. The rabbi looks at him crossly - at ninety-nine you’ve done enough peeing!”
Mala and I spend most of our time talking about books. She holds me captive with stories of her childhood in pre-war Eastern Europe - of being locked in the grandfather clock by her brother and having to sing an aria from La Boheme before he’d let her out; of the hallway being lined with mandolins, violins and cellos mounted on the wall; of her mother dropping live carp into the bathtub - all doomed to be made into Friday night’s dinner. And every so often, she allows me a glimpse into images of hell that haunt her memory, lifting the veil on a scene of being raped at the age of seventeen by a camp guard, or savaged by an SS officer’s dog. Sometimes Mala’s tales feel as though they are too heavy to carry, but they are also too precious to throw away. So, I sit facing her and listen.
Last week, towards the end of the consultation, after yet another one of her harrowing stories, I retreated into the safety of my role as doctor, automatically reaching across to pick up my stethoscope, ready to check her heart.
“What for?” she laughed. “If it’s broken, what will you do? I’m an old girl; it’s time for me to go. I’m not scared.”
I treat Mala’s arthritis, monitor her lazy thyroid gland, prescribe tablets that stop her legs puffing up like cookie dough. I co-ordinate podiatrist visits, pathology nurses, meals-on-wheels and dental hygienists. I liase with specialists, family, friends and carers. Yet despite all this, or maybe because of it, Mala has had enough of life.
She stood up and walked towards the door, stooped over, her back curved like a crescent moon, eyes fixed on the floor. Before I could stop her, she tripped and banged her hip against the edge of the bed.
“I can’t look forward to anything anymore,” she quipped. “Except coming here every week to tell you my stories.”
Scheherazade spun her tales out in order to prolong her life; the King allowed her to live day by day, eagerly anticipating the conclusion of the previous night's story. At the end of 1,001 nights - 1,000 stories later - Scheherazade had no more tales to tell. By then it didn’t matter though, because the King had already fallen under the spell of her stories and spared her life. By contrast, Mala’s stories distract me from my professional attempts to prolong life at all costs, sometimes betraying her right to live, or die, with dignity and grace.
As a doctor, my default position of treating sickness has been ingrained in me since my early days in medical school. It’s been a long journey, over many years, to come to the understanding that the art of medicine doesn’t simply lie inside an MRI scanner, or within the hieroglyphics of some blood analysis result. Rather, I’ve come to see, more and more, that the secret to the healing arts lie in listening to the sick - hearing their narratives and searching carefully for the true message of their tales, even if it is implied through subtext or entirely unspoken. This, I believe, is where the true skill of a doctor lies. So too for a writer, which I became as soon as I learned to pick up a pen and string words into sentences on the page when I was a child.
My day job as a doctor feeds my dream job as writer. One nurtures the other - without my life as a family physician, I personally would not have the privilege of plumbing the depths and richness of human emotion, of sharing peoples’ vulnerability and trust at times of deep need. And if I ever stopped writing, I would have nowhere to unravel, examine and explore the gifts of story that my patients hand over to me every single day.
As she shuffles out of the consulting room I tell Mala there will be no charge for today’s visit.
“Ah! That’s a true bargain,” she says, stopping to look up at me, her eyebrows raised, a smile creeping across her face. I am about to turn back to my computer screen when she laughs out loud. “Well, actually, that’s not true, you know.”
I stare at her, puzzled. She takes her hands off her walker and raises them towards the ceiling.
“Life is the greatest bargain on earth,” she says. “You get it for nothing.”
Leah Kaminsky, an award-winning physician and writer, is Poetry & Fiction Editor at the Medical Journal of Australia and Online Editor at Hunger Mountain. The author of several books, she conceived and edited Writer, M.D., an anthology of contemporary doctor-writers (Vintage Knopf US 2012). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. (www.leahkaminsky.com)
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.