He greets us from an armchair in the lobby, and gets up slowly, groaning. There’s a wan smile. “Our usual table is reserved,” he announces, and hands his bag and cane to J. Fifteen minutes later we’ve all gotten our food from the buffet – it takes him a long time now – and are seated. “What sort of soup is this?” he asks me, staring at the thick white liquid in his bowl.
“Clam chowder. The New England kind.” He turns up his nose.
“It’s good,” I tell him. “There are lots of chunks of potatoes in it too, along with the clams.”
“Eech,” he says unhappily, searching through the bowl with his spoon. “I don’t want chunks of anything.” These days, what he likes for soup is broth.
“So how are you?” I ask.
“No good,” he says, shaking his head. “Declining very rapidly.” It used to help when I reminded him that while the part about decline might be true, the rate wasn't, since he’d been saying the same thing for years; today I don’t try that logic. He is declining, and any protestations to the contrary would be denied for the pretense that they were. None of us can tell how steep a slope he’s on, though, so we do our best to ignore it and talk of other things, but as his world narrows that becomes harder and harder. He can’t hear the television or radio and find world politics very depressing; his eyes won’t allow him to read much, though he still tries; he has limited meaningful or mind-stimulating conversation now that most of his friends have died; he no longer writes letters, and phone conversations are getting very difficult. He looks forward to sitting with us after these lunches, in his own room, surrounded by books and papers, having a conversation that ranges easily from one subject to another: the usual tour of the family members, what he’s gotten in the mail, what he thinks of Bush this week, what he’s reading, how his friends are, who’s been to see him. When we can, we try to engage him in stories about his childhood or career, or the subjects he taught and cared about. Today he’s crotchety, and he doesn’t seem to want to stay on any particular subject, except to ask me to explain about the Anglicans in Africa, and then, when I do, he tells me the whole problem is because my church has lost its orthodoxy and is becoming just like the Unitarians – which is particularly ironic, considering that he was a Unitarian Universalist minister. “You just want someone to hold the line,” I tease him, trying not to allow myself to get annoyed. “You want the Catholics to be Catholic.” He smiles a little, caught out, and tells me about a former Episcopal priest in the same town where he served. “He was a good man,” he said. “And very orthodox. But I felt closer to him than any of the other ministers in town.” Tomorrow, he’ll call and offer a half-hearted apology, saying he was very tired.
I’d like to talk to him about the article in the Times the other day, about using the story of Philoctetes to instruct young medical school students. Philoctetes was a Greek warrior who, according to one version of the legend, was bitten in the foot by a snake when his ship – bound for Troy – stopped for a while. The wound festered and refused to heal, and its stench was so severe that he was left on the island while the other sailors continued on. In the play that Sophocles wrote about him, Philoctetes is an old, lonely, bitter man, complaining constantly about his wound and driving everyone away from him. When a young man, who turns out to be the son of Achilles, appears on the island, he is repulsed but also drawn to the suffering old man; he wants to leave but can’t. His mission, masterminded by the wily Odysseus, who waits offstage, is to steal Philoctetes’magical bow and arrows, since it has been prophesied that only they can kill Paris and bring an end to the Trojan War. But that becomes secondary to the moral questions of suffering, loneliness, and awakened compassion that Philoctetes – this ancient Greek counterpart to Job - brings up.
Others have been moved by this story: Seamus Heaney used it as the basis for a play, “The Cure at Troy,” moving on from the action in Sophocles play to follow Philoctetes, who, after Achilles' son gives him back his bow and arrows, goes with Odysseus back to Troy – against his will – is cured of his wound, kills Paris (the one whose love for Helen started the whole bloody mess in the first place), and becomes a hero. I haven’t read Heaney’s version, but will search it out. I doubt if my father-in-law has read the Sophocles play either, in spite of the statue of Socrates that sits beside him all day. But it’s the sort of thing he used to like to talk about. Now that he’s “on the sad height” himself, I wonder.
The medical students, of course, were supposed to put themselves in the place of the young man: entreated to stay and talk, to show compassion, even when they could do nothing to effect a cure. I thought of the research team whose work I’ve helped publish for years, who ask the most difficult questions about our health care system: “Is more better?”; “How much is enough?” “What kind of care are we getting – and what do we really want - at the end of life?” I thought of a Montreal friend, a nutritionist who works with the very elderly and ponders all the bypass surgery that is done routinely now, and often ends up prolonging the lives of people who would have died years before – like my father-in-law – but, she wonders, to what sort of quality of life at the end?
“In some ways, it really would have been better if I’d died back then, before my surgery,” he told me once. “I was still vital, still engaged, still doing work. Still in the thick of it!” When he says that, he’s judging a whole decade in the light of the past two or three years, and begging me to disagree. And while I may not argue anymore with “declining rapidly” I will continue to refute this one. He was an excellent candidate for bypass surgery, and in his case, I think the resulting years probably were worth it by just about any measure – including his own estimation, when he’s being honest - even though he outlived his wife and has had several years of increasing limitations. I think of his face last year when his book was published: as in the case of Philoctetes, there was more to be done.