A circle of ladies in a comfortable living room. Nice things to eat. Warm house. Products for sale. Catalogues. A consultant from Pampered Chef.
She took her time explaining kitchen gadgets that evening. The amazing can opener that could open cans without leaving any sharp edges on which to cut your finger. The incredible self-sharpening scissors that was so strong it could cut straight through the aluminum lid of the can you’d just opened. And the incomparable rubber spatulas that never stained.
We passed them around the circle, oohing, feeling.
My friend Grace sat there smiling, her face guileless as always, innocent, approving. She was one of the most positive persons I’d ever met – always ready to approve. My teacher friend called Grace her “happy pill” because each time Grace entered the classroom, she praised everything she saw.
“Well,” she said, shaking her head. “What in the world will they come up with next?”
And then, smiling, so amiable and ready to believe, “So how do they wear out?”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” asked the consultant.
“If they never stain, and your cans don’t have those sharp edges anymore to chew up the sides, how do they wear out?” Naïve smile, candid heart, unfeigned readiness to accept all the wonders of the world.
We missed a beat, all of us ladies in a circle, and none of us knew what to say. In the silence, the air hissed gently out of the boasts of the best of salesmanship.
Of course great thought had been put into the spatulas, to make them durable and effective.
And of course – no one doubted it – like every other spatula to date, they would find a way to wear out. At the moment none of us could think of How, but as sure as we were sitting there, we knew: they would find it.
I think about this story sometimes, when I hear about the stunning healing that baffled doctors, or the miracle granted in response to prayer, or the new product guaranteed to heal your fatigue and remove your wrinkles and put some pep in your afternoons and melt off the pounds and prevent cancer and cure Crohn’s.
“How do they wear out?”
I’ve been reading books on human mortality, and they’re making me think.
We as a society invest phenomenal amounts of research, money, prayer, and personal effort into the healing and preserving of our bodies, and rightfully so. We’ve made amazing strides in diagnosing and effectively treating all manner of disease. It is good to keep ourselves clean and shining, to mend the breaches, to treat our bodies with the respect they deserve so they last us well. I pray for restoration too – for myself and many others.
But at some point, if we are given the blessing of living, each of us must also come to terms with its flipside: dying. We humans carry life-limiting restrictions, and the best of our care is palliative. I don’t say that lightly. If we cure one thing, we will contract another. If we don’t contract that, we will plumb wear out from this.
Do not scorn the people who have made peace with this knowledge. They are not defeatist, but brave. Brave to fight hard, and brave to know when to stop fighting and flash a final smile into the sunrise of the new age.
There are no immortal spatulas.
That Good Night: life and medicine in the eleventh hour, by Sunita Puri, 2019
Dr. Puri writes from her work in palliative medicine. I have not yet finished the book, but it’s a page-turner for sure. Excellently done.
Being Mortal: medicine and what matters in the end, by Atul Gawande, 2017
I’m a big fan of Dr. Gawande. He is a leader in the shift toward medical understanding and acceptance of human mortality.
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