A show for a selected audience

A personal account of the importance of Medical Humanities on the threshold of a birth

«I can’t die with this man. He wouldn’t understand what I was saying. I’m going to say something brilliant when I die».
(Anatole Broyard – The patient examines the doctor) 

«I want you to look at me. I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.»
«Tell you what?»
«What you saw».
(A horse walks into a bar – David Grossman) 

It was a warm and sunny September morning. The roads were empty and silent, a testament to the enduring holiday season. In stark contrast, my steps resonated with a hurried pace. My period was two days late, and time was not a commodity I could waste in ignorance. 

The prospect of welcoming a third child in my life did not scare me per se, quite the contrary. My partner and I had made plans for expanding our family in the coming years. Yet, as I walked fast towards the pharmacy, an unspoken hope lingered within me—a yearning for the test to give me a negative outcome this time.  

Two children, a full-time job, night classes, and impending assignments already adorned the platter of my life. In contemplating my prospect of motherhood 3.0, the notion appeared less than ideal and premature in my mind. I wanted to be able to wholly commit myself to the new family member, and, most importantly, I wanted the agency to determine the precise moment when such a significant chapter would begin.  

I arrived at the office, dropped the bag on my desk, and locked myself in the restroom to start what felt like a private religious ritual, of which I happened to be the unwilling minister. 

One line. 

And another. 

Two lines. 

What followed in the next few hours was a series of conflicting emotions, thoughts, and reflections. The fear of lacking the strength to embark on this journey clashed with the immense excitement of embracing motherhood for the third time. The days that followed were filled with long conversations with my partner, close friends, and family, each uniquely contributing to what will forever remain the most challenging decision I’ve ever faced. All except one. My physician. She, a woman seemingly indifferent to her own self—nails marred and ensconced in crimson cuticles, messy hair, and eyebrows that defy conventional aesthetic canons. She, a woman who makes you doubt upon the capacity that she could extend genuine concern towards another. 

Her indifference to my plight was almost brutal, mirroring her lack of concern for herself. The medical information she dispensed was hurried, and her impatience for my final decision felt almost violent, destabilizing. Her failure to recognize the complexity of my choice cut deeply into my identity as a woman, mother, partner, and professional—facets she should have known given our enduring therapeutic relationship. 

Lost in that relational vacuum, I submitted to the informed consent she handed me and signed it. The procedure was scheduled after three days. I went back home. My heart was heavy. The more I tried to convince myself that it was the best decision, the more questions and doubts came to my mind. The next day, still uncertain about my choice, I called her office and cancelled the appointment, tearing away the signed informed consent. Then I reached for my phone again. A trusted friend had told me about her recent experience with an empathic and attentive physician. I searched for her number, gave her a call, and she scheduled an appointment for me the next week. 

It is hard to overstate the complexity of our relational needs when we are facing a personal crisis. This could be an illness, a difficult decision, the loss of a loved one, or something major entering our life that demands us to renegotiate our identities. Broyard powerfully states that, on that stage where we are at the apex of our crisis, when we are transcending life and exhibiting our authentic selves, we need witnesses that can see us and recognize us—someone who will be able to understand and appreciate the hidden meanings of our words. 

Another novel that talks about this witnessing and recognition in a meaningful way is A horse walks into a bar by David Grossman. It’s the story of two men, Avishai Lazar, a retired district court judge, and Dovaleh Greenstein, a comedian in his late 50s. Avishai is suddenly invited by Dovaleh to attend his show in a bar. The judge and the comedian knew each other as boys but have had no contact for over 40 years. When Avishai asks Dovaleh the reason for his invitation, Dovaleh replies «I want you to look at me. I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me». «Tell you what?» asks Avishai. «What you saw» Dovaleh replies. Dovaleh’s crisis is marked by past decisions that still haunt him and that detrimentally affected his close personal relationships. Not surprisingly, he is also in a state of severe health decline while performing his show. The stage where he performs represents the place where he is unveiling his true self, taking stocks of his life, showing all his vulnerabilities. On this stage, he needs a selected audience to witness him. In both Broyard’s essay and Grossman’s novel, we cannot but see the need of being seen as a critical need when our identities are falling apart – as if being seen and acknowledged by “the other” is the only act that can save us from this drift.  

I was not asking for much as I was going through my personal drift. Recognition should not take much time. Perhaps it doesn’t even need words. A simple glance, a warm touch, or even silence can convey understanding, validation, and recognition. What I needed from my physician, like Broyard and Dovaleh, was an honest, attentive, and courageous witness to my crisis. Mine, too, was a show for a selected audience. 

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