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losing my religion:  southern term for losing one’s temper, “flying off the handle,” going insane  etc. Note that the R.E.M. song of this title has nothing to do with religion, despite the common misinterpretation of the phrase.

Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger
Than you and you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up

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I don’t remember which one became my patient first. I think it was Him. But it could have been Her. He was initially more memorable. He liked to show me pictures. Of his woodworking and antiques he’d restored. Of his boys. Of the squirrels they’d killed that year. I asked him not to show me the squirrels but he did anyway. She was quiet. Told me about the jewelry she made and the things she grew in her garden and foraged for in the forest. I do remember the day I realized they were a couple. That he was the he she talked about and she was the she he talked about. The “Ohhhhh” moment. The “oh wait, she’s *that* She and he’s *that* He!” It happens a lot in my rural practice. Six degrees of separation is not a thing in rural northwest Pennsylvania. It’s more like two.
*
They started coming to their appointments together eventually. They would tell me about their garden and their yard and the retaining wall they were battling to put up. And they would tell me about things addiction patients in rural northwest Pennsylvania tell you about. Meth and heroin and jail and stealing from the people you love and five year old kids calling 911 when their mom overdoses. They’d both been clean a long time, but everyone had relatives and friends still lost in it. They were no exception.
*
They gave me things. A piece of amethyst they’d hunted and extracted themselves. A small glass vase with a flower from her garden. She gave me gardening tips, foraging tips, taught me some herbalism.
*
They were always late. Always. That was a given. And that was okay. As long as they came. Sometimes they mixed up their days and we’d get a call a couple days later and fit them in the schedule for another day. I always held my breath until they called. Because you never know. You never really know if something didn’t happen and if they’re really all right.
*
And so it happened that they came in a week or so after their appointment in early February. I wasn’t at my office in northwest PA so they came to my office in Verona. Sam got to meet them for the first time. They got to see my other office, which is fairy tale themed. I knew she’d like it.
*
She wasn’t herself that day, though. She was sad. So damn sad. He had to talk for her for most of the appointment because she couldn’t stop crying. She’d been depressed. But it was more than that. She’d been having pain in her side a while now and it was getting worse. She’d gone to the ER and they’d drawn blood work which came back with an abnormality but when they tried to get an IV in so they could run some imaging tests, the nurse couldn’t get it. They kept poking her over and over and she ended up leaving the ER.
*
I asked her some questions to see if I thought she needed to go to the ER right now (it had been a couple days since leaving the ER and she hadn’t gone back yet). Based on her answers I told her I didn’t think it was an emergency but she needed to go back and get the test done. I said maybe she could try going to a different ER where the nurses were better. We talked about her depression and I started her on an antidepressant and told her to email me in a couple weeks to let me know if it seemed to be helping at all so we could work on the dosing.
*
I had a crystal sitting there. Malachite. A pretty dark green stone. I’d been feeling for a couple of days I was supposed to do something with it. An odd feeling kind of hard to describe. Like, restlessness. But with a stone. And before she left I took it and said, here, I want you to have this. And she told me she had something for me too. It was a necklace she’d made but she’d felt timid about giving it to me. But when I gave her the crystal, she said, she felt okay to give me the necklace.
*
He said, (or maybe she said?) that it was fitting because it had a star on it and pointed to my walls. The room we were in has a Sleeping Beauty theme and is covered in stars. (It is based off something I wrote about kids with PANDAS battling the disorder and emerging from it, like sleeping beauties waking up). I took it and told her I loved it. And I did. When I went to put it on, the chain broke, so I put it in my pocket. My back jeans pocket. And we walked out together and said our goodbyes. And Sam said they were sweet and I said I was worried about her. And I was.
*
Somewhere between there and my kitchen, I lost it. The necklace, that is. I realized it later that night and told myself, it’s here somewhere. It’s not gone. It hasn’t fallen off planet Earth. You’ll find it (this is the same thing I say to my children when they are panicking over something they’ve lost. I find it is helpful to give myself the same talks I give them pretty often). I looked a couple places I thought it must be (the cubby over my coat hook by the front door, the back pocket of those jeans I’d since thrown in the hamper) but it wasn’t. Over the next few days I looked a few other places and it wasn’t there either. I tried to remain calm.
*
Then a week later I found it. I was trying to dig a quarter out of my left coat pocket for a cashier, in line ahead of a grumpy resentful old man in the Giant Eagle “12 Items or Fewer” lane and I pulled it out instead. I was relieved. He didn’t care. At all.
*
I went to coffee with a friend that morning (please note: this is a rare occurrence) and stopped in at the crystal shop across the street (please note: this is not a rare occurrence). It had been quite a while since I’d received that amethyst. A lot had changed. And I now frequented the local crystal shop (thus, the malachite). I was browsing on this particular day and saw a necklace with a stone in it that looked like the one my patient had given me. I excitedly drew the necklace from my left pocket and held it up side by side to the other and they were an exact match. I told the women in the shop the story of the necklace and asked what the crystal was. They told me and I asked if I could take the little card that had the name of it and its meaning and they said yes. And they said how sweet it was my patient had made me a necklace. And I said, yes she’s very sweet.
*
The next day I was answering the phone (Sam was out of town and I was like a dad on a laundry detergent commercial, drowning in ineptness with a lost look on my face, trying to perform basic office functions). I was relieved when a familiar voice spoke back to me. It was him. And then it happened. One of those moments. One of those moments that create a Before and After in your life. He told me she had cancer. One of the really bad ones. There’s no such thing as a good cancer. But there are such things as really bad ones. That’s what she had. I stopped breathing for a few seconds. Parastalsis slowed. I got goosebumps (the medical term for that is piloerection. It’s the same thing that makes a porcupine’s quills stand up when it sees a predator. It’s supposed to make us look bigger and scarier, in theory. It does not, in practice). In my head I thought, “Fuuuuuuuuccccckkkkk.” I did not say this to him. I asked how she was. I asked him a series of questions trying to get more medical type details. I tried to get him to say something that would make me realize he’d gotten it wrong and it wasn’t actually cancer. It didn’t work. He said she was resting but I should call her later. I said I would. Even though I was scared to. Because there’s nothing really great you can say. Because you’re a doctor and you’re supposed to fix people and this is not something you can fix.
*
Her palliative care doctor called a little while later while I was on the other line with someone considering making a medical marijuana appointment for anxiety. They had a hundred questions and, in the end, said they’d call back once they decided what to do. I listened to his voicemail and frantically wrote down his number and called him right back. He was nice. God help me, he was a genuinely nice, caring doctor. If you knew doctors like I know doctors, the way they actually talk when there aren’t patients around, you’d know how rare a thing that is. He hadn’t seen her yet (the appointment was for the next day) but he wanted to touch base with me since I prescribe her a controlled substance and his role was pain management (also prescribed substances).
*
When I talked to her that night (well, to her voicemail), I let her know the pain doc was good people and would take good care of her. And he did. We have texted and talked since then, each step along the way, She and I. He and I. And even the palliative doc and I. There is more to it than this, various details you might not expect. But the heart of it is this: a really beautiful human being is sick with something she likely won’t survive. She is in a lot of pain. And the man who loves her is doing an amazing job supporting her through it. He is an unlikely romantic hero. Not a sappy, trite one. A genuine romantic hero. And she is a warrior. Strong and smart and intuitive and kind and creative and honest. And she is so damn young. Too damn young for this shit.
*
And so it was that I came to wear a star necklace everyday (I ordered a new chain for it the day he called with the news. I kept it in my pocket until the chain arrived). And so it was that I came to wear that necklace the night I ran into a good Christian I know.
*
The Good Christian looked at it in horror. Genuine fear in his eyes. And he said, “Have you lost Jesus?” He was distressed. I looked at him and said, “What?” And he pointed to my necklace and said it was a witch’s necklace, a Wiccan necklace. I said, it’s a star. A patient made it for me. That doesn’t mean I’ve lost Jesus. He looked… freaked the hell out.
*
And I thought of the word the palliative care doctor had used when he told me about her CT scan. Innumerable mets. Meaning, the cancer had spread to so many spots, the radiologist gave up counting. I remember when he told me that I wondered, at what point do they stop counting? 10, 20, 100? Maybe that particular radiologist was lazy and she really only has 3. But that’s not likely. When he used that word, innumerable, the hope I’d held out faded away. And I began to focus on how we could all support her in finding peace and being comfortable and doing the things with her last months she’d like to do. Because, lets be honest, doctors very rarely actually fix patients anyway. So maybe this very nice palliative care doctor and I could help her with these things. Hopefully I could be of use.
*
I thought of that word, innumerable. And I thought of the cancer growing inside her. And about how brave she is. And how sweet her he is. And I looked at this Good Christian and saw something in him. A different kind of cancer. One with innumerable mets to the soul. Dark and sticky. Inoperable. Incurable.
*
And I thought, this patient knows more about Jesus than you ever will. Because Jesus is love. And she is full of love. And she has brought joy and love to so many people. And she will keep doing that. Despite it all. She will keep inspiring other people to love. And she knows that I love her. And she lets me love her. And loves me back.
*
And that, dear reader, is not something the Good Christian is capable of. Not something he even understands. And that is why a necklace can inspire a look of dread and disgust in him. A star. An innocent little star.
*
I told my kids a bedtime story tonight. The boy in the story was looking up at the night sky when a shooting star appeared. My daughter got so excited and was urgently shouting “make a wish quick! Before it’s gone!” She was nervous the boy in the story would miss it. Because everyone knows if you make a wish on a shooting star, it comes true. Because that is what stars are for. To wish upon, to make our dreams come true as we sleep beneath their lovely glow. They’re magical. And shooting stars? They’re actually little burning meteors,  magical, glowing rocks. Kind of like amethyst or malachite.
*
If taking comfort in that means I’ve lost Jesus, dear reader, then consider me lost. Because not every sleeping beauty wakes back up at the end of the story. Sometimes her true love kisses her goodnight one last time. And releases her to shine down on us and remind us of who we are, innumerable stars in an endless universe connected to one another always.

 

***

Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger
Than you and you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up
Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I’ve said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
That was just a dream
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
Try, cry
Why try?
That was just a dream, just a dream, just a dream
Dream