遺憾

The Chinese people have a word to express regret, but it goes much deeper. It means that at the end of it all, there is a sense of unfinished and “incompletable” business, an “if only” left hanging. Or something along those lines. But the word kept echoing in my head over these months of medicine.

I have interacted with family members of patients who were unreasonably rude to the point of insulting. In any other context I would probably lash out, but each time, it’s easy to see that they are responding to the guilt and helplessness in watching loved ones suffer… And even more deeply, sometimes, a desperate wish to compensate for all the missed opportunities to show that they care or love the person despite knowing that it seems too little, too late.

I felt this sense of “regret” most heavily on Christmas eve – some inpatients had family who brought in droopy Santa hats, presents, and constrained cheer – only to sit for half an hour with awkward attempts at conversations before leaving to other obligations. Others would ask to speak with the physician, and rehash the same questions they’ve asked over and over again, hoping for a different answer than the one that they could see in front of their eyes. But I had the rare privilege of witnessing something different that night as well.

That night, one of the patients took a turn for the worse and family members were notified. Her husband, who was constantly at her bedside the entire admission, asked her church friends to come. During the night, quiet tears were shed, but prayers and worship songs were heard. She passed sometime after midnight. She was surrounded by people who mourned for her passing but also rejoiced in her life with her and loved her. To me, that moment reflected a life that has no 遺憾 (regret).

I witnessed how when everything culminated to this point, neither herself nor her family members desperately grasped to hold on to something. We so often live in the future-tense, then when the present ends with no future, we are left like the roadrunner in bugs bunny. In the new year, I really hope I can live each day in such a way that I could say to myself, at the end of it all, there are no “if only’s” left hanging.

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