I’ve blogged about the day I went book shopping with friends and found a favorite book. This is the story of another book that day.
I usually shop with a strict budget I’ve set for myself, not so much set in dollar amount but whether I’ll use the item or not, or whether it was something I was looking for. But I went into that day knowing that somewhere, I’d allow myself a treat. I didn’t know what it would be, and I was on the prowl for several titles, but I would know the surprise treat when I saw it.
I was looking for a copy of Les Miserables that’s easy to hold in my hand, not chunky, and has space for notes in the margins and isn’t super expensive. At the idyllic Loganberry Books, I found one that could have worked but was still too pricey, so I put it back on the rack. I’m still looking for a winner for that wish list.
On my way past the counter, ready to leave without buying anything, I brushed past a table full of newly-published books, and That Good Night caught my eye. I flipped open the dust jacket flaps and skimmed them. The author was an American-born daughter of immigrants from India. She was about my age. She was a palliative care doctor and this was her story. It checked all my boxes, and I knew this was my treat for the day.
I’ve rarely been so thrilled with an impulse purchase. I’ve read the book twice in less than two years because I love it so much.
In her last months of medical school, Sunita did an elective in palliative care and suddenly started grappling with questions about what did it mean to live well, and how was dying different from death, and how to treat the person instead of the disease? She writes with mastery and gentleness about her experience of starting to unlearn the things she’d learned in medical school.
Her elective experience moved her so profoundly that she chose to make palliative care her career. What kept my attention even more than the medical accounts was the way Sunita talked about how she needed to learn a different way of listening and speaking. She says the biggest shift in her new responsibilities was her new relationship with language. She still used and prescribed drugs and treatments, but she used words as her primary way to probe, diagnose, and find a good way forward–even if that way meant patients dying and not getting healthy again.
Maybe I found the story so riveting because I don’t ad lib well, and when I’m put on the spot, I often regret what I said. Here, Sunita recounts hyper-fraught meetings with super-stressed patients and their family members. Every conversation was a mine field, but she had good mentors, and she practiced words and phrases in front of a mirror and learned how to find her way through unpredictable, volatile conversations. It makes me think that maybe, maybe I could learn to listen better and use words better too, even on the fly when I don’t have the luxury of time to craft them.
I’ve loaned the book out several times to friends, and they say they enjoy my notes in the margins, but none of them gushes about the book, or were as taken in as I was. Fair enough. But I loved being immersed in those emotionally-charged conversations where, by listening well and using non-inflammatory language, she found a logical, level-headed solution that let everyone feel heard and helped. I love the idea that using words well is a way toward healing and peace that replaces chaos and fear.
Sunita writes from a Buddhist perspective, which adds a fascinating layer to her story. It’s not healthy to agree everything you read, and I loved the exercise of sifting through what I admired and what I didn’t agree with. The glimpses of Indian culture and worldview makes it a rich read.
Please let me know when you read the book, because I’d love to hear how you experienced it!