Mind On The Run: “Vanitha! Vanitha! Mother To Us All”
(Musical accompaniment: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George Harrison.)
Bodhisattva: In Buddhism, a person who is able to reach Nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.
It was my birthday and I should have been planning how to celebrate the occasion, how to manipulate the funds in my 401K, or where in my wallet to store my new Medicare Part A enrollment card. The plangent background monotony of steady drizzle outside was finally broken by a CD of soft piano music emanating from an inner upstairs chamber. I should have been planning for the rest of my medical career, my grandchildren, my future retirement, the hallowed time in the “clubhouse” of my life. But all I could think about was Vanitha, and I wished that I could go back.
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches
And so I dream of going back to be
It’s when I’m weary of consideration,
And life is too much like a pathless wood.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile,
And then come back to it and begin over.”
— From “Birches,” the frequently anthologized poem of Robert Frost.
I wished to go back again to the weekend 20 years ago that Vanitha saved my life. You see, Vanitha had no life of her own. She was diagnosed with MLD — Metachromatic leukodystrophy — in her second year and lived a largely vegetative existence (or so we thought) until her inevitable death in late adolescence. But while she was no longer playing in her dollhouse, she was manipulating the fortunes of several selected sentient beings — her real-life dolls. Her mother Ronnie — all-suffering and all-patient — earned a “fast-pass” to Nirvana. Her brother became a physician of extraordinary compassion. And me — she became the hero of my life.
I was her pediatrician during what the medical profession would call her vegetative years. I was the only person who was able to draw her blood for anticonvulsant monitoring. (Residency was not too far behind me.) When the organization with which I was employed disintegrated and sold out, she followed me to a practice closer to her home which accepted her medical assistance insurance. During this time her status steadily deteriorated and much of her care was tantamount to holding her and Ronnie’s hand and trying to role-model for her brother. One Christmas, Ronnie gifted me with a wooden statuette of a crowned maiden standing on an orb who I assumed to be the Virgin Mary. I was perplexed because the family was devoutly Hindu. I think Ronnie knew that I was intrigued by Eastern spirituality.
Outside of this close relationship, the practice of medicine at my new employment was being gradually altered by external forces beyond my control. I was too slow, a bleeding heart, a dodo who allowed anxious mothers to postpone vaccinations until they felt comfortable. Resisting this juggernaut of change merely led to the perception that I practiced “against the grain.” I was targeted and attempts to fight back were counter-productive.
So it was no surprise to me that I was summoned to Human Resources on a Friday morning and threatened with termination if I did not “mend my ways.” I was accused of being nothing more than a “nice guy,” overindulgent with parental concerns, and not producing enough revenue to satisfy the administrators. The lead pediatrician tried to soften the blow by giving me the rest of the day off, but I refused. “As you please,” the physician remarked with a sneer. This was followed by a handshake accompanied by the most contemptuous smirk of victory I would ever behold. I left the meeting crestfallen. My only focus was on my potential demise, my need to recreate myself, and how to escape from despair.
I tried to distract myself from the pain and remorse by working hard that afternoon, but I became aware of murmuring regarding an adolescent girl in another of our offices who had died that morning of a cardiac arrest following a seizure. None of my coworkers had notified me; as anticipated, conversation was limited and awkward. At the end of the workday, I was lucky enough to reach Ronnie (I had her phone number memorized) and confirm Vanitha’s passing to another realm. But the dollhouse was still in operation and the memorial was on Sunday.
After morning rounds, I arrived at the service. I had insisted on giving a eulogy, intending to commemorate and canonize the devotion of Ronnie and the rest of Vanitha’s family. After a few sentences came a strange turn of events: I completely broke down, crying convulsively, unable to carry on. Vanitha’s mother and brother tried to console me: “She is no longer suffering,” contended her brother. I later realized that at that time — unknown to everyone, including myself — this misdirected outpouring of tears was my way of extricating myself from my own personal grief. For the crafty Vanitha, the Bodhisattva, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was time for her to board-up the dollhouse and enter Nirvana. Whether the moment of her death coincided with the contemptuous handshake can only be a matter of speculation. At this point, the supernatural clause of the patient-doctor relationship had also been terminated by powers far greater than both of us.
After the service, the mourners and I “chewed the fat” about our individual perceptions of the afterlife. I can summarize the discussion with the old Taoist teaching: “Those who tell, do not know — those who know, cannot tell.” The only unanimous decision was that the Bodhisattva was truly “no longer suffering.”
For me the years that followed were productive and fulfilling and exciting, professionally and personally. I lost my inhibitions about self-revelation and even starting giving wry, contemptuous handshakes to my children when they held out their hands for “grub.” I became more sensitized to the spiritual realm in which we may coexist with the material. And the statuette is still gathering dust on my night table like a favorite old doll. A replica not of the Virgin Mary, or of an ancient Hindu goddess, but of Vanitha in Nirvana, her current realm— and now mother to us all.
“May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better….
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
P.S.: One can do no better than strive to be a Bodhisattva! A belated Mother’s Day to all!
(Read more from Dr. Kovatch’s Mind On The Run here.)