Although the recycling container was already full, I had two more bags to stow before lugging the bin through the gate into the front yard. My button-down shirt was untidy and bulging out from the waist. My long khaki pants felt like a fur coat in the Chicago humidity. It was 4 PM and I had just arrived home from work; I dropped my computer in the doorway, gathered up the last bit of recycling, and headed for the door.
As I struggled to force the trash into the container, my pager began to vibrate. I pulled the bin to the stairs and sat down on the steps. I fumbled with my phone, awkwardly punching in the numbers on the display. The sweat formed on my forehead and slowly waltzed down my face.
I recognized the number immediately. An 80-year-old woman with end-stage lung cancer had been receiving hospice care for the last few weeks, but we still talked from time to time. Recently she became too sick to communicate and her daughter had been calling instead.
The end had come. Her family had been huddled around the bedside, waiting for her last breath. It was the inevitable conclusion to 80 years of nearly constant motion.
Her daughter was now crying on the phone. Her mother had just died. We talked. The serenity and calm of the backyard was in stark contrast to the turmoil of the conversation.
I concentrated to distill all that I had learned about death and all that I knew as an internal medicine physician who cares for the aged and dying. I contemplated how painful it is to lose a parent, even if you are expecting it, and how when your remaining parent dies you feel lost, alone, and disconnected. I thought how the terrible pain will eventually abate and how one day the memories will make you smile instead of hurt.
But all that wouldn’t help now. So instead, I told her that I was sorry and that it was both a pleasure and an honor to have taken care of her mother. And I assured her that if there was anything I could do, she should call.
Then I hung up. I slipped the phone back into my pocket and stood. I grabbed the trash bin and struggled toward the gate.
I continued on with my day as if this wasn’t out of the ordinary.
As if this was something people do every day.