Terminally ill movie mogul: I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything important.

MG: How can you say that?  You have a hospital wing named after you, you’ve created many jobs and the public loved you.

Patient: I have all the love that money can buy and that’s all it’s worth.  I also have some ex-wives that I screwed over financially, a bunch of kids who can’t support themselves, and the utter foolishness to think I could beat the odds by smoking two packs a day… and now I’ve dying of lung cancer at 54.

MG: So if I told you more about all your accomplishments and good deeds, that wouldn’t show you how much you’ve done for the world.

Patient: Nope.  Not now.  Hey, don’t try to con a con man, especially when he’s dying.

MG (being reasonably good on my feet from my work as a hostage negotiation trainer and go to person by the media on 9/11, the Columbine Shooting and the Oklahoma City Bombing, I wasn’t about to let this go): You know there are a couple words from my profession that aren’t very nice that I’ve thought might apply to you and I didn’t think I’d get to use them, because, well because you’re dying.  Those words are Narcissist and Psychopath  (now picking up intensity in my tone).

And you know it is quite possible that you blew it.  I mean you did do an amazing job of keeping that pristine image in public which you acted shabbily in your personal life; and you did very little to turn your kids into anything respectable; and you really did beat up on your ex-wives financially and for all I know physically.  Yes it really is possible that…

Patient (shouting out): Stop! Okay.  I get the point, just stop!

MG: And that point is?

Patient (with a knowing smile about what I was doing): This is not a good time to be asking those questions.

MG: Correct. Pain control, morphine drip, as much dignity as possible and then just sign off.  Look you aren’t evil.  You’re flawed, but so what? Everyone else is.  So you were an a**hole.  Big deal.  You did do a lot of good.  Just let it go.

Patient: Maybe you’re right.

After two weeks and a handful of subsequent meetings to spackle together as much peace of mind as possible, my patient died peacefully.

In contrast to the patient, I remember an entirely different man I will call Mr. Cohen. And I mean really remember, because this happened 38 years ago while I was in medical school.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon and I had just finished doing an EKG on Mr. Cohen. Unlike everyone else living at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Mr. Cohen was spry and totally alert for his 87 years. As a third- year medical student with much living (and learning) ahead of me, I couldn’t understand why he was staying in this place, which well appointed as it was still remained a last holding unit for people who were waiting to die.

I asked Mr. Cohen why he lived in this morgue when he was clearly doing so well. He looked at me with a patient, knowing look and explained: “Two floors below us is my wife, Emma. Three years ago, she developed Alzheimer’s disease and then had a stroke on top of that. On the very best of days, which don’t occur that often, I think she might recognize me. At all other times, she’s lost.”

He went on to tell me to me that Emma and he had fled the Russian revolution together, and that more than a few occasions she had saved his life. The couple made their way to America, started a tailoring business and raised a wonderful family. “I tell my family not to visit as much as they’d like,” he said, “because I want them to make sure they enjoy their families now and because their mom and I are doing fine.”

Each day, he would wake up, go downstairs to his wife’s room, bathe her, replace the diaper she now needed, put her into a sun dress, braid her hair, have breakfast with her and then read his newspapers and books as he sat beside her.

I didn’t get it. Why was he doing this with a woman who couldn’t even recognize him? “This poor man must be eaten up with guilt,” I thought.

I suggested, presumptuously, that Mr. Cohen’s guilt would not help his wife. The old man looked at me with an amused sparkle in his eyes and shook his head at my stupidity.

“You really don’t understand, do you? This is where I want to be. Maybe someday you will understand.”

It’s been thirty five years since my visit with Mr. Cohen and I think I do finally understand. Instead of guilt, he felt joy in the presence of someone he had loved and been loved by for sixty years.

It is difficult to change from a human doing to a human being, but as I observed first hand from people who died having it all, but who felt as if they had nothing and others who had very little, but felt they had it all, it’s probably something worth the effort.

And the takeaway?

Wealth is what you take from the world, worth is what you give back, and peace of mind is about who you’ve loved and who has loved you.

  • A Good Man, A Good Death

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