Are you religious?
It was the end of our conversation and that was the question she had asked me, from her seat in the relatives’ room. The correct answer was that I didn’t really know, anymore.
Probably I am not. Or maybe a little; perhaps in a sense that doesn’t subscribe to any one denomination.
But I had already said ‘I don’t know’ so many times over the course of the past 15 minutes.
‘I don’t know,’ or a version of it.
I didn’t know if the treatment would work.
I didn’t know if he was definitely going to die.
I didn’t know what she ought to tell the rest of the family.
‘What do you think he would want?’ I replied, and that I think I would want to know.
In communicating uncertainty, you can’t really be surprised that it leaves the face of a relative uncertain. But, it doesn’t make it easier to watch their face. The despair, the expression that is asking for something that is certain, imploring you to give them something that is concrete.
Often the only certainty I can offer is that we are doing the best that we can.
So, she asked me if I was religious. With a face that appeared to be willing me to say yes and I just could not bring myself to say no, or that I didn’t know.
I said yes.
She smiled and took my hand and said that she could tell. She squeezed her fingers around my own and said that she knows, now, that he will be ok. She said I am an angel.
And I am no angel and I am aware that I have lied. I think it is perhaps that we get so used to being what a patient or their family need us to be. We get used to searching for what it is they appear to want us to be, in that moment:
Tactile, or not.
Straight to the point, or not.
Gentle, or firm.
Collaborative, or directive.
Silent, or not.
I have been all of these things at different times, for different people. A chameleon, in those moments. What harm is there?
I can think of one: that I would not like her to think that the quality of care or chance her relative has to survive, could ever depend upon my own religion.
She was comforted, I think. I felt like maybe I had done myself a disservice, but then it isn’t really about me, is it?
I would like to have answered with the truth.
Next time I wonder if I will say no.
By the Secret Doctor
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