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Cotton Candy Angels

Cotton Candy Angels

Everything can change in an instant.

by

About six months ago, my daughter, Julia, became obsessed with all things princess, so it did not surprise me when she wanted a princess themed fourth birthday party. For me, an athletic, independent professional, these past four years of living with a daughter whose color palate ranges from pink to pinker, the frillier the better, have been quite an education. I have come to realize that tiaras are a necessity, and that we don't dare leave the house without a wand and at least two purses in tow.

With a coquettish tilt of her head and her well practiced pout, Julia begged "Mama, Dada, please, I have to have a beautiful sparkly dress for my party." Though as usual, I tried to explain how much more important compassion and intelligence are, and how beauty comes from within (blah, blah …), my husband, has fallen victim to this taffeta indoctrination. So, for her birthday, she got a lacy pink full length princess dress, complete with gold sparkles and diamond sequins. I rolled my eyes, but even I was up late the night before the birthday party making mini muffins and heart shaped tea sandwiches, because "princesses don't eat pizza," my husband, Julia's willing accomplice, had admonished me.

The next day, with great fanfare, they arrived -- the Cinderellas, Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites, clad in frothy creations of pink, blue and yellow, each lacier, gauzier and more satin then the next. Under my breath, I muttered something about Disney's eventual world domination, and went about making sure there was enough pink lemonade and jelly beans for everyone.

But as the party wore on, something happened. I watched the girls, each pretty as a flower, as their faces glowed with excitement, and I noticed that the sunlight caught the jewels on their dresses and made them light up with multicolor radiance. Even my cynicism melted. It was magical -- all of a sudden, our garden had become filled with the laughter of a kaleidoscope of fairies as they limboed and twirled. I inhaled the fragrant joy in the air and watched, eyes wide with wonder, to imprint this into memory.

I cling tightly to moments like these because as a physician I have learned that everything can change in an instant.

Just the day after the party, a stunning young woman came in for a physical exam. An aspiring actress new to Los Angeles, she did not have the vivacity so common in Hollywood types. Something about her was different. She was wistful, more thoughtful, and though she smiled, her face was etched with sadness. She answered my typical questions softly, without elaboration, and when I asked if she were married, she paused, took a deep breath that caught in her throat and shook her head. I assumed she was just melancholy, until I examined her and noticed a symbol in the small of her back.

"That's an interesting tattoo," I mentioned.

"Oh that?" her eyes fixated on the ceiling, "that means regeneration." I watched her but she did not meet my gaze.

"After the accident," she continued shakily. "In 2000, my fiancé was driving me to school and we got hit by a drunk driver. My fiancé was paralyzed from the neck down, and though I was hospitalized for two months, I'm okay. I tried to stay, but his family blamed me, and it was too hard for him to see me. When I was there it was worse. I sorta like acting, so here I am."

She looked at me with a far away stare.

"Life is certainly not what I expected …" she sighed.

A few weeks ago a patient who I had not seen in about a year came in. A 45-year-old business executive, I remembered her as sharp, acerbic and confident. This time, I barely recognized her. Her face was sallow and gaunt, and she was wearing sweats that hung limply on her body.

"Oh, Dr. Yaris" she slumped in the chair, "please help me, I can't eat, I can't sleep …"

"What's going on?"

There is something extremely humbling about giving someone life-altering news.
"Eight months ago, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died one month later. Two weeks after that, my twin sister got diagnosed with breast cancer, and she just died -- three weeks ago."

She shuddered and hugged herself. "We were all so close. I thought our family was charmed … I can't believe it …"

She looked at me with that same distant stare that I have come to recognize. In it, a mixture of utter disbelief, mourning and helplessness.

'Fate' had struck both of these women and sent them reeling, to confront pain and tragedy most of us dread, and dazed and broken, they were struggling to reemerge.

Occasionally, my job dictates that I be a conduit of 'fate' -- the God’s unwilling messenger -- and this is the hardest thing I have to do. There is something extremely humbling about giving someone life-altering news, and though many theories exist about how to give bad information, none explain how to avoid being deeply affected by having to do it.

Recently, I had to tell a single father of a ten-year-old boy that the lump in his neck was lymphoma. I watched as the light in his eyes faded to that same vacant stare, and though I tried multiple times to penetrate his thoughts by squeezing his hand and explaining promising treatment options, he was completely unreachable. Scientific possibility can not at all assuage the complete shock of mortality.

A few weeks ago, a prim 55-year-old woman with a faint European accent came in for a physical exam. A recently retired French teacher, she was thrilled that she was finally going to be able to spend time with her orchids. She spoke lovingly of her three-tiered garden, and how she and her husband were going to spend peaceful days tending to it. The only medical concern she could think of was two weeks of rectal bleeding, which she assumed was hemorrhoids, and I agreed. I suggested she see a gastroenterologist, really only for a screening colonoscopy. So I was completely surprised when the doctor I referred her to called and said, "It's cancer. I know its colon cancer, but I took a biopsy. I told her I'm very concerned, and she is coming to you tomorrow for the biopsy results."

I thought about that gentle woman, but for some reason it was the image of dying flowers in an untended three-tiered garden that made me shiver.

Life is so very fragile. Each jeweled, sunlit moment must be cherished.

The next day, when she came to see me, I could tell by her blank expression that she knew. I can't figure out, however, what I think is more sad -- her diagnosis, or that she leaned forward and whispered to me, "You know, doctor, my husband cried all night." She shook her head, "After 28 years of marriage, I never knew he cared so much …"

Each of these patients, and many others like them, weighs heavily on my soul. From their tears I have learned many lessons -- but mainly that life is so very fragile, and that each jeweled, sunlit moment must be cherished. I know that one event, diagnosis or phone call separates me, too, from having to face, eyes glazed, that empty abyss. This is why I keep pictures of Julia's princess party close by. Because if and when darkness falls, I want to look back and remember that beautiful late summer day when giggling cotton candy angels danced in my backyard. And my eyes will clear and I will again see God's light.

Published: October 23, 2004


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Visitor Comments: 25

(25) Cheryl, April 1, 2006 12:00 AM

re: a very special doctor

what you have written is just beautiful and it is heartwarming to hear that you as a doctor cares so much? We must treasure every moment yes, but we must also believe in a life with God when we reach heaven then we have hope and rejoicing in our heart and we can acept all. Love to you Jackie! Cheryl

(24) Anonymous, October 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Right when I needed it...

On Thursday I read Dr. Yaris' article and tried to picture what she saw/felt when speaking to those patients. It didn't stay theoretical for long--on Friday I found out that my next-door neighbor's beautiful little two year old daughter has leukemia. When I saw her mother she was already a different woman. But she told me "This is a decree from God, we have to accept it with love." I will work to keep memories of happier, healthier "Cotton candy angel" moments in my heart so I can stay afloat and offer my neighbor support. Please keep on writing. I especially appreciated your article "Keep on Singing."

(23) marcus, October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

A most touching article. From reading the introductory paragraph, I thought it was a rather shallow article - I couldn't have been more mistaken!

(22) Alex Talkar, October 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Classic article

We are born not because we had any option but because All Mighty had some purpose or a task for us to do, hence our passing away is sure but which way only He knows.

(21) Anonymous, October 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Beautiful article

Dr. Yaris has once again written a beautifally inspiring article! Life is indeed so very fragile, and, until we are confronted by tragedy, we often do not realize it.

Having been forced into a catastrophe by an evil person, I just want to implore all readers to treasure their families. There should be no closer relationship then between a husband and wife!!

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