While the Grief Circle is on pause, I want to offer what I hope will give you a moment of levity around the subject of death and dying. I never cease looking for an opportunity to smile at the ravages of fate, and I found a delightful moment in a book that emerged from the boxes of my recent move.
My favorite books are the ones most obscure, which will never make the NY Times top 20 list. To be honest, many, if not most, of the books on the bestseller lists aren’t worth my time. Give me books that were written out of a pure passion for the subject.
Such a treasure is Patrick Ober’s book, “Mark Twain and Medicine: Any Mummery Will Cure.” I knew Ober when we both worked at Wake Forest University/ Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem; the book was published, understandably, by the University of Missouri Press in the state where Samuel Clemens, i.e. Mark Twain, lived.
In one of my favorite passages, Ober offers up Clemens’ famous humor around the subject of death and dying.
“I was always told that I was a sickly and precarious and tiresome and uncertain child, and lived mainly on allopathic medicines during the first seven years of my life,” Clemens wrote. In addition, he grew up during a time when half the children born were expected to die before their 21st birthday. That fact, combined with his frail health and the many deadly diseases of the time, including scarlet fever, caused the family to gather around his bedside more than once in anticipation of his demise. Clemens wrote of one of these days, “I had begun to die; the family were grouped for the function; they were familiar with it; so was I.”
But the occasion of his impending death happened so frequently that another problem arose. As Ober describes, family members were so accustomed to bedside vigils for him that it was sometimes difficult for them to maintain their attentiveness, and Clemens complained that “they often went to sleep when I was dying.”
Thanks to Patrick Ober for bringing us new ways to love, and laugh with, the great American writer Mark Twain.