Tragedy Is Part of Life; What We Often Lack Is Meaning
One of the most humbling things about medicine is being forced to confront the painful and difficult matters that make up this life. I have one more week in the acute assessment unit on an aged psychiatry ward. There are sob stories here aplenty, enough tears and hurt to drown the nation, no doubt. Last week I admitted a Polish lady who spent the cream of her teenage years, aged 15 to 18, as a forced labourer in World War II Germany. She was forcibly taken by the Wermacht and never again saw her parents. In one of those cruel twists of history, the end of the war saw Soviet occupation of her homeland and she and all those in her refugee camp fled to Australia rather than face communist rule. She now lives in a paranoid world, haunted by memories of the things she saw in Germany, which she now confuses with modern life in Melbourne.
That’s tragic, a true tale of woe caused by the cruelty of man, and the horrors of war and slavery. Life however, has other tragedies -- things the U.N. cannot solve. There are some deeply distressing experiences that have nothing to do with dictators and greed, and everything to do with the frailty of the human condition.
“Arthur” is 80 and a giant of a man. He came to us two nights ago simply because his wife, the love of his life, his companion of 60 years, can no longer cope with the confused, incontinent wreck that Alzheimer’s dementia has made of her man. Arthur migrated to Australia in the 1950s from Greece. He worked as common laborer, and saved enough to marry his teenage sweetheart and raise three loving children. Arthur then went to school and studied enough to qualify to join the police force, where he had a dignified career, without formal distinction, but with more than a small amount of respect from his peers.
His family adore him and are beside themselves with grief at what he has become. Throughout his life, he was dedicated to his wife. The two had been inseparable until, on the verge of breakdown from lack of sleep, she brought him to our unit. In his moments of lucidity, all Arthur asks for is his wife. He complains he cannot sleep without the comfort of her presence in the same room. For her part, she is racked with guilt that he is away from home and that, after three years, she has had to ask someone else to care for him for a while.
There is no secular meaning to this suffering. There is nothing one can blame apart from the deadly combination of genes and environment that caused a protein called amyloid to deposit itself in Arthur’s brain and eat away his personality and memories. For his wife, the love of her life exists in fragments, within the shell of a frequently incoherent, irritable, wandering insomniac. It is a true tragedy -- and it is part of a normal and “good” life.
It is in circumstances such as these that I have found that religious faith has enormous power, to both comfort and to lend meaning to the pain. There is hope. Hope that Arthur has a life after this to come, and that his family may one day meet him again. Hope that there was some enduring purpose to the sacrifices and life of an 80-year old husband and father called Arthur.