There is always something left to love

‘Life’s the best thing that’s ever been invented’, said the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez before succumbing to cancer at a refined age of 87 on the 17th of April this year. Through a decade long battle with the illness he wrote his memoirs, the wisdom of which I often use in dealing with neurosurgical patients. ‘The secret of good old age is none other than an honest pact with solitude’ he said in one of his most famous books – A thousand years of solitude.  Contrary to today’s generation who believe it should be a pact with amplitude and altitude.

When people come to me with vague aches and pains in the head and the back after having tried every medicine from Bombay to Boston, acupuncture from Chinchpokli to China and massage from Tami Nadu to Thailand I emphasize one of Marquez’s popular quotes, “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.” And then in search of happiness they buy every self help book on the shelf, pop some mood elevating hormonal pills and spray ‘Oxy-calm’ into their nostrils – a puff that takes away your sadness in the same way that nebulizers take away your shortness of breath.


But sometimes the headaches are not vague.  People get diagnosed with brain tumors. Half of them are benign, the others, malignant. Surgery often cures the former but the latter requires radiation and chemo buying variable amounts of time from the investment bank of life. Gago as he was fondly called, to this effect said “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”


It is in these moments that religion and spirituality and wanting to do good suddenly come to the forefront. I wonder why not do it when one is perfectly healthy. ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of Him’ one of my patients said before being scheduled for surgery. I reassured him that he’d be ok but by then he had already acquired the forlorn look that one sees in vegetarians.


In the middle of my seeing patients I get a call from the emergency room informing me of a 35 year mother of two lovely children who suddenly fell unconsciousness and a CT scan showed a massive hemorrhage into the brain due to a ruptured aneurysm. She was declared dead on arrival. I ran to visit. Her husband was by her side and he seemed to talk to her straight from Garcias 1985 epic novel – Love in the time of cholera. 


‘If I knew that today would be the last time I’d see you, I would hug you tight and pray the Lord be the keeper of your soul. If I knew that this would be the last time you pass through this door, I’d embrace you, kiss you, and call you back for one more. If I knew that this would be the last time I would hear your voice, I’d take hold of each word to be able to hear it over and over again. If I knew this is the last time I see you, I’d tell you I love you, and would not just assume foolishly you know it already’ How many of us have missed this opportunity? But as a consolation I wondered ‘No matter what, nobody can take away the dances they already had’.


Silently, I returned to the clinic to see a 3-year-old baby, adopted by a childless couple. The child had been perfectly well for the first 6 months of her life and then began having refractory epilepsy, uncontrolled by any medicines.  They sold their land, left their jobs, borrowed money and come to us as their final ray of hope. Through their ups and downs they told me that ‘the most important thing in a marriage is stability and not happiness’, which allowed them to go through this turmoil together.


Epilepsy is one of the areas we specialize in and surgery cured this little one of her seizures and when they came for a check up a year later the mother said to me ‘that she discovered with great delight that one does not love ones children because they are their children, but because of the friendship formed in raising them’ The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good.


‘The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love’ said a teenager who fell off a cycle doing stunts trying to impress his girlfriend. When I examined him he had a minor head injury but a major smile on his face. ‘All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret’ he said quoting Gabriel. I explained to him that if he were to try this again he would have a fourth life, which would be no more. I told him I was like him when I was younger but learnt quite quickly. Crazy people are not crazy if one accepts their reasoning.


The last one to stutter into my consulting room was an aging man with a shuffling gait who found it difficult to walk without support but would not allow his caretaker to hold his hand. ‘Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel’ he said in his baritone voice as he disturbingly arranged himself on the chair. He was a business tycoon who had all the money, wealth and fame in the world but had lost every bit of it to the few vices that over shadowed his worldly endowments. In the bargain, he gave up his devoted wife and his grown up boys for whom he once was their hero.


‘It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams’ he said to me, himself being an avid reader of Marquez’s work. He was diagnosed with a lymphoma of the brain that kept coming back despite all forms of treatment. He was all alone with no one by his side. ‘Nothing resembles a person as much as the way he dies’ I thought to myself. I told him it would be a good idea to make amends with the family.


He said Gabriel’s most famous words admitting his folly – ‘Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do us any good.’ and collapsed in in a heap in my consulting room.