Excerpt from Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Dear Life

A Doctor's Story of Love and Loss

by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke X
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke
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  • Published:
    Sep 2020, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Print Excerpt

The idea of professionally obligated lying had never occurred to me. As a fairly puritanical nine-year-old, I was not even sure I approved of white lies. I liked my human values rigid and polarised – right and wrong, black and white, entirely admirable and wholly unworthy. But the sadness in Dad's face, in this moment, was anything but binary. He must have ached with the knowledge, unvoiced to his patients, that one by one their

organs would inexorably shut down. His voice softened as he continued talking.

'The Navy arranged to fly their parents to Hong Kong, so the boys knew – or thought they knew – that they'd be seeing their parents as soon as we arrived there. One had a girlfriend. He was worried about how he'd look to her. So I lied. I pretended they'd have a romantic reunion. I tried to make them feel positive. They hadn't been adults for very long, Rachel. To me, they still seemed not much more than children. After about twenty-four hours they started to become groggy, and not long after that they lost consciousness.'

'But ... wasn't there anything you could do to save them?' I asked.

'Nothing. Nothing at all.' 'And, then ... did they die?' 'Yes, they died, Rachel.'

Dad looked away for a moment. I wanted to cry. I was not sure what disturbed me more, the thought of the two young men sailing unknowingly to their deaths or the sight of my father, visibly overcome. Being a doctor, I had assumed, made you close to a god, and I loved having my father on that pedestal. Now I had glimpsed, even if I was unable to articulate it, the uncomfortable truth about medicine that, while the demands of the job are indeed exceptional, the person occupying the role of doctor is, just like their patients, merely human. Whether I liked it or not, I recognised my father as someone with fallibilities and frailties, just like the rest of us. And although I did not know what 'empathy' meant, I felt a little of his sadness.

None of Dad's stories lingered quite like this one. Countless times as a child I had observed his job leave him so numbed and weary on returning home to his family that he could scarcely do more than flop upon the sofa, gin and tonic in one hand, newspaper in the other. But until then I had never considered that the core of his medicine might be kindness, not heroics, and what an instinct for kindness could cost a person.

Many years later it would dawn on me that in those moments, while sweltering below deck in a windowless sickbay, my father had in fact struggled to practise a brief and unusually horrible form of palliative medicine, the pain of which had never entirely left him. His actions that day, his lies to the two young naval ratings, were an attempt to eke out for them some quality of life, no matter how tiny, even as death bore down on them. In conventional medical terms, he had achieved nothing at all. He had not prolonged life, enhanced life, slowed death's swoop, bolstered health. Yet in human terms, by managing to stifle his horror at the charred flesh and looming demise of two young men, by keeping close at their bedsides, by ensuring they knew they were not alone, perhaps he had helped make an intolerable fate bearable. Perhaps he had done everything that mattered.

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From Dear Life by Rachel Clarke. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.

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