“I used to be an elementary school art teacher in San Francisco.”
The more he smiled and the more he spoke, the larger the lump grew in my throat. He wore a grayed T-shirt that matched his unkempt black beard. It was flecked with white hairs, but by no means did he look old. On the contrary, he was quite young, no older than maybe an uncle of mine. When I first walked up the stairway into his home, I recognized his red plastic slippers and felt an immediate connection because, like him, I also made a custom of wearing my own indoors. He spoke with an accent that gave color to his travel stories and that was soft enough that I could hear a female voice resonate off the tiles of the bathroom. She must be the one we were here to see: his wife. She was speaking with the care aide in a gentle but strained voice. I could only guess the extent of her illness.
“My oldest daughter just started college in New York City.”
The living room we were in was small, but he and his wife obviously put tremendous effort into decorating it. A large beautiful painting with hues of blue that seemed to pop out of the canvas immediately stole my eyes. It looked like the outline of a peacock’s feathers but more abstract in style. It sat on the seat of a wooden chair, waiting to be hung up. Handmade cards surrounded the painting, including carefully drawn pictures of landscapes, flowers and sketched-out words like “I Love You!” I unconsciously held my breath as a life-like illustration of a hummingbird colored with fine, intricate strokes washed over me. I could almost hear the sound of its golden red-orange wings flap in the calm air of the room.
“Our extended family came to visit my wife this weekend.”
I could see hints of his fondness in the humanities and artwork engulfing his home. I noticed a note card on the side of his desk with black musical notes filling in between the lines, written in haste or in a moment of creativity. A thin brown piano sat at the end of another room with the wooden cover open. Books with spiral bindings, scrapbooks and recently used coloring pencils on his desk caught the edge of my vision. What stood out the most as we made our way into the bedroom was an ugly gurney sitting beside half a dozen lifeless pill bottles. The different shapes, sizes and dulled colors of the bottles resembled haphazard stepping stones.
“I have to leave soon to pick up my two sons from school.”
As the voice of the care aid bounced through the door, I remembered bits and pieces of our meeting in the office this morning. Our patient’s metastatic stomach cancer could not be treated with medications. Surgery was ruled out long before she came to seek the care of the facility I followed. Now, as the husband continued to tell me about how he first arrived in San Francisco from his home country, I again felt it more and more difficult to speak. The tragedy of it all hit me hard, but the vivacity he demonstrated in his art struck me the hardest; I hoped he would not lose it with his wife’s inevitable passing.
“Oh! What part of San Francisco are you from?”
I am only a passerby in his and his wife’s life. I doubt I will ever see him again as my rotations take me on the next adventure. His wife will never know my face, nor will I ever know hers. She insisted on staying in the bathroom even by the time we left. But in our brief encounter, I am humbled by my own vulnerability to life and death. My eyes open to the husband’s depiction of wildlife in its purest and most human form: his artwork bears contrast to the vitality rapidly withering away from his wife. Mortality is ultimately certain, but like the husband, I hope to create moments that enable life to go on despite the inevitable. Whether with my hands, mind or words, I aspire to explore the boundless beauty of humanity in medicine as it soars from one canvas to another — with or without wings.