“An Old Wise Man Once Said..” Personal Story of Life and Death

 “First I was dying to finish high school and start college.

And then, I was dying to finish college and start working.

Then, I was dying to marry and have children.

And then, I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school so I could return to work.

But then, I was dying to retire.

And now, I am dying……

And suddenly realized, I forgot to live,” An Old Wise Man.

 

And I say…

 

“Live as if you are never going to die. Because if you don’t do stupid thing when you are young, you won’t have anything funny to talk about when you are old.” Danielle Krol

 

 

In her Eyes

 

By Special Guest Writer: Elizabeth McKinnon

 

As each day goes by throughout my third year of medical school, there are times when I need to remind myself how important becoming a doctor really is to me. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day. And you begin to focus on where that light at the end of the tunnel is located. Some days you’re guided by a very faint light, and some days you’re just wandering around blindly in a dark tunnel.

I had a difficult time growing up. I was my own particular type of outcast. I often took myself out of equations that were deemed too exhausting. As a young teen, my ideal Saturday morning included a trip to the used bookstore, then an afternoon of sipping on a mocha Frappuccino and reading in a cuplike armchair. I watched people my age flit about with their own fancy coffees in swimsuits to the beach, a favorite weekend activity in my hometown in south Florida. But I never joined in the regale. I was riddled with self-doubt and didn’t think myself to be as pretty as the other girls my age. And of course, it was simply too exhausting. Besides, who had time to lie out in the sun when you could save yourself from skin cancer and read a good book instead? And for the most part, I led a lonely, solitary life and convinced myself it was because I had nothing in common with other people.

But every couple of days, I was reminded that I was never alone. It was whenever I received a phone call from my biggest fan: my grandma. My witty little Italian grandma lived in New Jersey and made sure we talked as often as we could because of the physical distance between us. Sometimes we’d talk for over an hour, and mainly I’d be talking her ear off about all the minute things I did in school. I got another A, my science fair project won second place (still bitter about that one), or I was going to be in the school play as “Wench #3”. Such a proud moment for me.

In 1992, my grandma contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite. The disease presented in such an uncommon way that it wasn’t treated properly, and she ended up losing the use of her legs. During the span of my preschool years, my grandma had gone from being an avid social dancer to being completely wheelchair-bound. To add insult to injury, the ordeal had caused a major stress reaction and she later developed multiple sclerosis.

Her life had just begun to get difficult. When I was 7, my mom announced that we were moving to Florida. There was nothing she or I could do about it. I remember distinctly not wanting to leave my grandma behind. Without us around anymore, my grandma had hired a series of live-in nurses to help her. Most of them spoke very little English and thus began a long road of isolation for her. Our other family members stayed around and helped, but the highlights for her were whenever we visited. I loved visiting as well: when we came up to New Jersey, her house was stocked to the ceilings with donuts and cookies and whatever chocolate goodies my sister and I could find around the house.

And every night, I insisted on sleeping in the den on the couch while she slept in a recliner nearby. We always ended the night the same way after a few episodes of “The Golden Girls”. She would say, “Lizzy, thank you for being my granddaughter. You’re the love of my life.”images-1

But as I said, our long conversations got us through the time between visits. I called her first when I made the Colorguard team in high school. And then later on, she got to hear about my acceptance to college, my D+ in Calculus (still very, very bitter about that one), and then the triumphant moment when I was admitted to medical school. She never relented her faith in me; she always knew I could do it, even when I doubted myself. It might have been one of the proudest moments in her life to see me succeed at a dream I held for so long.

To everyone’s surprise, my grandma developed breast cancer shortly after that, and she was forced to leave her home to move into an assisted living facility. She was reluctant at first because she didn’t want to lose her hired help, but it was the best thing for her. She grew to love the home and even made friends. I loved hearing about her new friends who would talk about their own grandchildren. “But don’t worry,” she would say, “I’m sure you’re prettier and smarter than their granddaughters.” Probably wasn’t true, but it was a very sweet thought.

In 2012, I was able to give her some more amazing news, news I had been hoping to hear since I started medical school. “Gammy,” I said to her, “Guess where I’m going in November? I’m moving to New York!” My grandma was ecstatic, and we immediately made plans for me to go visit her. I went three or four times to visit in my short time in New York, and one day in April I even surprised her with a visit. She had no idea I was coming. We had a wonderful time, and so we made plans for me to come back on Mother’s Day, when I had a weekend break in my schedule.

But unfortunately, that day would never come.

In early May, I received a call from my mom. My grandma wasn’t feeling very well, and she asked my mother to fly up to see her. I rushed to meet my family at the home, but my grandma was already in a coma. Her final wish was not to be resuscitated or hydrated, but to be in complete comfort. Every measure was taken to make sure her final days would be lived without any pain.

And she died peacefully while I sat by her side, six days before Mother’s Day.

I never thought I would have to say goodbye to the person who gave me strength where there wasn’t any before. I never thought I would have to speak at her funeral and watch her be placed in the mausoleum next to my grandfather. For 26 years, she was there when I needed her: mentally, spiritually, in whatever way I needed her to be. She was the one who told me to hang in there when I was young because she was so sure I was destined for greater things. She was my biggest fan in every kind of weather. In her eyes, I could do no wrong.

I find myself these days, on the heels of more rotations, board exams and another interstate move, wishing I could talk to her just one more time. I wonder about what advice she would have for me about how to proceed with the final years of my education. She would probably tell me that everything is going to be just fine, something we all should take a moment to tell ourselves on a regular basis.

I know my grandma is in a better place. I know she’s up there dancing. She’s whole again. And I know when the going gets tough, and some days it’ll be a bit too much, I know that she’s tapping on my shoulder, saying those loving, familiar words:

“Thank you for being my granddaughter. You’re the love of my life.”

My grandma knew that becoming a doctor means the world to me. With each passing moment, that day becomes a little clearer through the haze that is our unpredictable life. While I no longer can hear her voice on the phone encouraging me be all I can be, I’m far from lost. Now I can feel her holding my hand as we march together into that long, winding tunnel.

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Elizabeth McKinnon

Elizabeth McKinnon

A lifelong lover of books and the stage, Elizabeth set out to write her first book in college and her second one while she was working as a medical assistant at a dermatologist's office. In her spare time, she writes plays and short stories and enjoys sharing them with friends and family. She plans to pursue a writing career in medical fiction and is currently working on her third book. Elizabeth is a Pathology Resident at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Elizabeth McKinnon

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