I wrote this article 20 years ago for The PankeyGram, and it is still relevant today.
As I walked into the room, the nurse was applying medication to a hand wound my grandmother had received from a fall a week earlier. My eight-year-old son, Tim, and I had traveled a thousand miles to say goodbye to my grandmother. At 89 years of age, her body was finally ready to give in to breast cancer, and her mind had fallen victim to Alzheimer’s disease over previous several years.
I knew she would hardly know who I was, and if she did remember, the memory would be gone moments after I left. However, my father was an only child, and it was important to help him through these difficult times. My son also needed to learn about his roots.
It was sad to see her unable to hold herself up in a chair, and she seemed so frail and weak. I said hello to her, and she opened her eyes enough to gaze at me. Her air-filled voice repeated, “I’m so tired. I’m so tired.” I held her hand and comforted her the best I knew how. I showed Tim to her, and she struggled out a sincere smile towards him. I told her stories about my family, my job, my tree we planted in honor of my grandfather, and how full and complete our lives were. It was as if I was trying to justify her life through the one, I was able to live now.
We had brought some cinnamon cookies with us, and I offered one to her. Her dry frail hand reached for a cookie. She slowly nibbled on it.
As you spend time with someone who is close to death and appears to have lost everything, one naturally thinks about how unimportant much of one’s life can be. I thought about the worldly parts of my life: the cars, the boat, my home, or ability to travel. I thought about the simple function of life: walking, running, feeding ourselves, dressing ourselves…. We have so much when we are healthy. Being a dentist, I reflected on how trivial teeth seem at a moment such as this. I pondered these thoughts as the first cookie disappeared, then another.
My grandmother’s exhausted manner seemed to temporarily dissipate. She had found pleasure in nibbling the cookies. With her eyes closed and body relaxed, my attention focused on a collage of colorful photographs hanging next to her bed. Looking down at me was a picture of my grandfather, almost as if he approved that I had come.
My grandfather was a righteous man who always felt it was important to do things the correct way. His home was not large, but it was perfect. Every part of it was neat, crisp, and clean. The saying “everything has a place and every place has a thing” describes how well he took care of his belongings. In the same manner, his and my grandmother’s health had been important to them, including their teeth. They both had most, if not all their teeth until the end. Even at the time of my grandfather’s death at the age of 84, he was scheduled to have some major dental work completed. My grandfather had been comprehensive about caring for his health and life.
My grandmother was now working on a fifth cookie. I watched as she gently grasped it, lifted it to her mouth, bit and sighed with pleasure at its wonderful taste. Suddenly, I realized that because she had her own teeth at age 89, she was able to find some pleasure in what most would consider horrible existence. She could still eat and experience the pleasure of taste! What had seemed small in the scheme of things a moment ago had renewed importance.
Many patients judge the competence of a dentist based on whether they are free of pain. However, a dentist’s true competence is measured by whether patients still have the ability to eat at the end of their lives. This can only be achieved with a comprehensive long-term approach to dentistry and helping people understand the importance of this type of care.
No matter what you do in this world, you need to treat people in a personalized, comprehensive fashion. Now I look at every patient with the hope that when they have lost everything else, including their mind and most body functions, they might enjoy the ability to eat and the sense of taste.
As her hand reached out, her fragile voice whispered to me, “May I please have another cookie?”