An Ordinary Day
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along;”
W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts
Early twentieth-century British poet W.H. Auden used poetry to explain that suffering is prosaic—victories also.
I remember feeling such a let-down when I passed my doctoral exams. I studied for nine months and gave birth to a two-hour oral exam to find the experience anti-climactic. I was unable to sleep that night thinking of my responses, of how I wished I had answered differently, and of all of the things that I knew but didn’t get to discuss.
Even so, I’d passed, so where was my ticker tape parade? After all, I went to school in a city known for parades. Instead, I faced the next hurdle: a dissertation.
We get married and think of it as one of the most important days of our life, but the world moves on not much knowing or caring. It’s also like this when we give birth. These things are significant and matter, of course, but largely go unnoticed by the world at large without any sort of pause, let alone a parade.
When I got the diagnosis that my mother had dementia, it was much the same. I lived too far away to be at the meeting for neurological test results so was phoning into the appointment. Mom was so proud of my Ph.D. that she told the Mayo Clinic neurologist about to deliver the diagnosis that I was Dr. Kathryn Duncan. He assumed that I was a medical doctor and very bluntly delivered the news about Mom’s health and his recommendation that she immediately start Alzheimer’s medication.
It was simply another day at work for him.
For me, it was a day I’ll always remember that changed my life.
It was the same when Mom died. She was in an assisted-living facility for those with dementia. She’d had a stroke and was under hospice care. The hospice nurse, Carol, had reported Mom’s death, and we were waiting for someone to arrive from the funeral home.
Carol had left the room, so I was alone with Mom when lunch was ready for the residents. I sat in the room with Mom—not a body but Mom—as the staff ushered everyone past Mom’s door to have lunch. The sound of normal, everyday chatter filtered by while I experienced one of the most profound moments of my life. A few feet away from me was an ordinary day, but mine had changed profoundly.
It’s always like that, really. As I write this, almost two million people have died from covid-19 worldwide. I don’t know any of them personally, but I do know more than one person who has lost a loved one to covid-19.
It’s incredible that even as we live through a global pandemic that life simply marches on. We still must eat our lunches as did the residents at Mom’s care facility. We keep moving along.
Maybe what we can do is not walk “dully along.” We can remind ourselves that the First Noble Truth is life contains suffering, which inevitably means that we are suffering, someone we love is suffering, many people whom we will never meet are suffering, and, yes, even those we might dislike are suffering.
Suffering connects us.
If we are the doctor delivering the bad news, we can recognize that the other doctor, Ph.D. in literature or medical doctor, is hearing news about her dearly loved mother and best friend.
We can operate from compassion and like the “Old Masters” never be wrong, understanding that an ordinary day in an ordinary life might be a very memorable and potentially painful one for the person standing right next to us.