And now we welcome the New Year. Full of things that have never been…
-Rainer Maria Rilke
With the coming of each New Year I think about what has passed, passing and to come. But today I find myself not reflecting on 2016. Instead, I am catapulted back in time to my tenure as a medical humanist (2002-2005) at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. What comes to mind is the celebratory ritual upon the completion of each patient’s treatment, which was an array of balloons and bouquet of flowers. It was a lovely gesture which patients embraced with the belief they were cured. And, many were —but there was no guarantees.
One patient immediately comes to mind. “I don’t recall any conversation with my doctor about my risk of a recurrence – nor did I ask,” she confessed. “What I do remember is that moment of inhaling the scent of flowers, the sensation of balloons lifting me off my feet and believing I was cancer free. And, I have been for years – that is until now.”
Who was it that said writers by nature think about and try to understand the very things the rest of the world doesn’t like to think about? At the next weekly meeting with the clinical staff I referred to my conversation with this patient. What I know—we all know— is that in time balloons lose their air and flowers wilt. What is not known and cannot be known is whether a cancer will recur.
I asked my colleagues, “What is the message we want to convey to someone who has completed treatment?
I answered my own question by turning to the words of Emily Dickinson who said, “Forever is Composed of Nows.” I suggested that we give each patient a mug with that message inscribed to serve as a lasting reminder to live each and every moment.
The medical staff agreed. Thus began a new ritual for celebrating the completion of treatment. I must confess that I took a mug for myself.