Wild and Precious Life


Wild and Precious Life

I needed to go to her funeral to process my grief. She had died not unexpectedly but slipped away before I had a chance to say goodbye. Her final words to me, “Thank you Dr. Vassel,” with a labored softness. Her mouth had gotten dry as her illness marched ahead to its untimely conclusion. 


Some patients have a way of marking a place in our hearts. I can remember how many of our visits were filled with what now seem like trivial problems, a prelude to what was to come. As if each visit she was building her trust in me, so that I could be someone she could rely on in the end. 


I arrived at the space for her celebration of life, being hosted in the backyard of her complex. Ahead of me was a large garden filled with untended patches and weeds, nature trying to reclaim its space. The wind sang through the trees rustling the quivering alder leaves. Cotton swirled around, looking more like misplaced snowflakes on this warm June afternoon.


I had taken the pamphlet with her name on it, and her wise eyes stared back at me, the front displaying a Mary Oliver quote from her poem “The Summer Day”. My patient had taken to reading her poetry in the last few weeks of her life, identifying with its appreciation of nature and its observations on death.


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”


As the thought of this question passed through my mind, I was immediately struck by its wisdom. For me, there was also an implied sadness to this question. Did she feel like she had really lived? Did she have any regrets? Was I wasting my life? Was I doing what I was supposed to be doing? So much of my life has been about becoming a physician and now practicing medicine, my wanderlust to explore long stifled for more practical endeavors. Now with two young children at home, the daily chaos of raising them seems to leach out all the energy I can muster outside of work. I haven’t painted or played my guitar in months. There is much of the world I have yet to see.


I pondered this as I walked through the garden. My patient had been swiftly ushered beyond this realm into another. It was a relief to remember her saying to me she had no regrets on the life she had lived. 


Did I have any regrets?


In that moment, my sadness over her passing caught me mid-step. I had to stop and look up. Tears came quickly if I let them. The sky was a blue wonder, my guilt for not being there when she died fueling on my feelings. I find it interesting to observe how I have learned to reign in my emotions, to box them away and let a clinical head prevail. I hadn’t until that moment really let the sadness out. I was going to miss her, and her passing was heartbreaking, no matter how expected it was. 


The celebrant stood in front of us, dressed in white. No one was wearing black, apparently the call was for “the brighter the better”. Each person who spoke on her behalf, detailed stories of her past. Of the person she was, the small eccentricities to the core of her pesonality. The time she skipped school, the time she left college and hitchhiked across Canada. Her family and friends filled in the gaps of this person, that I had gotten close to and came to know, more and more as she was preparing to leave this world.


My impression of her shifted somewhat, as if she was trying to teach me one final thing. She had lived life on her own terms and followed her happiness boldly where it took her.


In the final weeks before her death, she proudly explained to me her burial plans, where she wanted to be laid to rest and the beautiful casket she had chosen for herself. At her private burial her family released butterflies. 


As the choir sang to close out the proceedings, I noticed two white butterflies appear and then hover over the singers, who were beautifully singing “Halleluiah” by Leonard Cohen. Their presence felt heaven sent, and the feeling was mutual amongst the other attendees.


Practicing family medicine. I have the privilege to walk these journeys with patients. It is this vantage point that we have, in the front seat, to witness the most profound moments in a person’s life. It is also our privilege to appreciate a person for who they truly were in their death. This witnessing does come with its own feelings, as we too experience these tragedies, with our own guilt and our own sadness. After all, our patients become part of our lives as well.


I left feeling lighter, and confident that my patient was in a better place. It has left me to wonder however about my own wild and precious life. What will I do with it now?


My name is Jen Vassel and I am a Family Doctor from Langley, BC. When I am not at work, you will find me chasing after my husband and two daughters ages 4 and 15 months. I also love to paint, garden and play guitar.

1 comment

  • Thanks so much for sharing. For all our hard work, we are truly blessed with what patients leave us to ponder, and appreciate.

    Kim Torok

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