Ever have one of those conversations where the person you are talking to goes off on a tangent? All of a sudden you are way off the subject and you don’t know how it happened and you don’t know how to get back to the subject and you begin to wonder how many more tangents are there and will this conversation ever end. Doesn’t it just drive you crazy sometimes?
But sometimes going off on a tangent reveals a story that needs to be told and that needs to be listened to. This is what happened to me the other day as I sat and talked with a cancer patient. I had asked him how things were going with his recovery from his bone marrow transplant and he had asked me how my weekend had gone. I was telling him how we had celebrated my daughter’s fiftieth birthday party and how that had gotten me to thinking about the passage of time and of my own age. The patient then talked about birthdays he had that had made him think about time. He said, “My forty-seventh birthday was one that made me think because my dad died when he was forty-six and I thought to myself I’ve lived longer than my dad.”
“What happened that your dad died at forty-six?” I said. He then went on to tell me that his dad had been diagnosed with a very rare from of cancer. He had been off work for several months and had suffered a lot from chemo therapy and radiation treatments. After all this his dad was going to go back to work in early November. The weekend before he went back to work the family went to a relative’s wedding. The patient’s father and mother and aunt and uncle and some siblings were all in the car for a total of eight people. At a crossroads a drunk driver blew a stop sign and broadsided the car. The patient’s father was thrown from the car and the car landed on top of him and crushed him to death. The patient’s mother and the patient were severely injured and were fortunate to survive their injuries.
Even though this event had happened over forty years ago the patient still was telling the story as if it had happened yesterday. The pain, the loss, the trauma, the questions that defied easy answers were still evident in the tone of his voice and the emotions that played across his face.
One of the things that struck me in his story was how his father had done so well in his cancer treatments that he could go back to work only to die in this car accident. What could this chain of events mean? As I raised this question the patient said, ” I know. Wasn’t that crazy?” He then told me how a chaplain had visited him in the hospital after the accident and told him that it was a blessing his father had died in the car accident before he had to die of cancer. The patient replied to the chaplain, “Bullshit!!” And he said to me, “I still don’t know why this happened and I don’t know if I ever will and I’m OK with that.”
The other thing that struck me about his story was that it had a profound effect on his life. It was one of those experiences that in many ways had defined him and shaped his thinking and his living. The patient agreed that this was indeed true for him. He said, ” I have never forgotten how precious life is and and I have always tried to do things that would have a significant impact on other people.”
So I left this patient’s room not frustrated that we had gotten off on a tangent but deeply moved that I had been able to be present with someone who had an old wound that needed to be examined and tended to.
To all of you reading this I encourage you to let some of your conversations go off on tangents as well. You never know what hurts people are carrying that need a listening ear and a caring heart to provide some necessary healing.