As I’m getting older, I think about what has passed, passing and to come. I am catapulted back in time to my tenure as medical humanist at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center (2002-2005). 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 that most patients embraced with the belief they were cured. And many were—but there were no guarantees.
One patient immediately comes to mind. “ I don’t recall any conversation with my doctor about my risk of 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.”
This unwelcome news was unsettling for me to hear. Yet, it has been said that writers by nature think about and try to understand the very things the rest of the world doesn’t like the 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 loose 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 the message inscribed, which would serve as a lasting reminder to live each and every moment.
The medical staff agreed and thus began a new ritual for celebrating the completion of treatment. I must confess that I took a mug for myself.