A Beautiful Game

You died at six-thirty in the evening, whilst no one was looking.

Whilst nurses pushed a drugs trolley and doctors shuffled notes and the other patients settled down to watch the second half. When everyone was busy doing something else, it was then you decided to leave. Silently, without fuss or ceremony, and without any of us even noticing that you were no longer there.

You’d had enough of the ward and the blood pressure machine and the cold cups of tea, which formed a queue on the bedside table. You had grown tired of the circular ward rounds and the doctors who ebbed and flowed, trying to find a reason for their own existence.

 When the consultant read out the results of your scan, you turned to him and said ‘so I’m a goner?’ and you stared into the middle distance until the words found your eyes. Then I watched you shake the consultant’s hand, as though you both had made a pact on God’s behalf.

You didn’t cry or argue or search for hope. I wanted to cry and argue and search for hope in your place, but you said that fighting with the referee never got anyone anywhere. Sometimes, it was better just to leave the pitch with your head held high, like a gentleman.

And I was angry, because you never said goodbye.

I had stood by your bed an hour earlier and we watched a perfect goal on the flat screen television which played in a corner of the ward.

“You have to pick your moment and choose your spot,” you said to me. “That’s the secret.”

I was angry, because you never said goodbye, but it was only later, when I remembered the goal, it was only then I realised that you already had.

I just didn’t hear it.

There was no family to ring. No one to apologise to. No one needed a bereavement pack to tell them how to cope.

“Aww, that’s so sad,” said the nurse. She didn’t lift her eyes from Heat magazine. “I’ll ring the mortuary in a minute. I’m on my break.”

I will miss you.

Even though the man at the nursing home had to ask me to spell your name and a key still hung in the latch of your empty locker. Even though other people’s relatives always borrowed the empty, plastic chair by the side of your bed and no telephone ever interrupted us with questions about what kind of night you’d had.

Now, each time I walk on to the ward and look over to see a stranger lying there, I will miss you again and again. I’m not sure how these things work, but I hope you know that someone cried for you. I hope you know that your life was worth that much. And yet I hate myself for such selfish tears. Tears which reassure me that you mattered and tears for my own inadequacy, because I know I could never leave with such grace and dignity.

And because I didn’t say my goodbye, I will write for you instead. Somehow, I think by writing, the world will be vindicated. These words are an absolution for the empty, plastic chair and the silent telephone and by committing you to paper, in some small corner of the earth, you will always be remembered.

Because you should always be remembered.

You left the pitch with your head held high, like a gentleman.

And you were the bravest man I ever met.


  1. What a truly beautiful account …. and a strong and faithful Gentleman.

    Lots of love to you Jo – no point in fighting with the referee – a wise man


  2. Joanna, you already know that I think you’re a beautiful writer. This piece is extraordinarily moving.

    (And Annie: Joanna’s a doctor, not a nurse. And very wonderful she is too.)

  3. Darling Jo, you break your heart so easily and give pieces of it away to those in need. He’ll have gone onto the next great adventure with a sliver of it gripped in his hand to give him courage.


    • Thanks Jan – I’ve just managed to stop crying after reading another of Jo’s powerful and stunning posts, and now your comment has made me start all over again.

  4. Beautiful and powerful. Thank you for bearing witness to this old gentleman’s passing. For that afternoon you were a guardian angel’s replacement.

  5. I can’t see what I type for the tears it’s so good to know that some doctors really do care. A lovely piece of writing.

  6. I sobbed and sobbed when I read this. It’s so beautiful, Joanna.
    Thank you for taking the time to notice a life. It’s the doctors like you that make all the difference.

  7. This moved me so much I almost didn’t leave a comment. What can I say after reading this? Amazing. Terrifying. Tragic. Sobering. I simply cannot understand how hard it must be to do your job.

  8. Your writing touches the heart, Jo. I can relate to that passing anger when someone dies when you’re not there for a moment: my mother did the same. I think sometimes the dying need a little space to prepare, or perhaps they don’t want to be the one to leave you standing there – who knows. But you express it beautifully.

  9. Oh Joanna, you are a really gifted writer and I suspect the same is true of you as a doctor. You have given that man a wonderful memorial in that many strangers have taken time out today to read about him, to reflect on his life and his character and to appreciate him – and you too.

    Claire. x

  10. As always Dr Jo you make me so very proud of you. Proud to know you and class you as a friend.
    As always your words are perfection capturing emotions and circumstances so perfectly and seemingly without effort.
    As always your dignity, grace and compassion shine through.
    He was blessed to know you as am I.
    BIG hugs to you my very dear friend. xxxxxxx

  11. Moving and poignant again…like I said in the comment to “Elephants” – you tell the stories behind the forgotten and the neglected, and in doing so ensure that they won’t be forgotten.

  12. I have read this various times today, and would love to say something profound here in the comments.. Truth is, that I have no words to adequately describe how moved I have been each time that I have read it, or how I keep coming back to it because your words have been in my head.
    Instead I will simply say, thank you so much for sharing, your patients, family and friends are lucky to have you.


  13. ‘out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks’ Mat 12:34
    I’m sure you write so movingly because you feel so deeply and empathise so completely. A beautiful tribute. I hope too that he knew you cried.

    Thanks Joanna

  14. For some reason I overlooked the fact that you are a doctor until I read some of these comments. Somehow it makes what was already an exceptional, exquisite capture of the last moments of a life even more powerfully poignant.

    Thank you so much for this tremendous gift – to the world and to this man. Just… beautiful.

  15. You ..my friend..are an inspiration to all. I haven’t spike to my folks for over a year…we had a ”Falling Out”..you’ve made me realize time IS pprecious..and nothing should come between me and my Mom and Daddy…..thankyou…a lesson learned @ 46..you are exquisite….

  16. I think, Jo, the number of responses tells you everything you need to know about your skill. The warmth and simplicity of your writing reaches out and touches people’s hearts every time; well done.

  17. I try not to comment on my own blog posts, but I just wanted to say thank you so, so much to everyone who has taken the time to read and leave a message. You have all said such lovely things and I’m incredibly touched by your words. The man in A Beautiful Game had absolutely no one and to think that his story has been read by so many people is truly wonderful. It makes a difficult job so much easier and your kindness in taking the time to write really does help me to walk the hospital corridors. Thank you x

  18. What a beautifully written, touching, poignant post. I found your blog by a roundabout route, and I’m so glad I did. The quiet dignity of this gentleman’s passing could only have been noted in solitude, but through you it can be applauded and appreciated by many. You have done something very special for him and for us; it is humbling and uplifting to see some of his spirit and your compassion. Thank you.

  19. Thank you for being brave and for loaning out your words on behalf of all of us who are wordless in the face of grief—and on behalf of those who have no words left. I am convinced that the entire world is full of people-shaped spaces that the loved and the unloved, once occupied. Thank you for filling up one such empty, gentleman-shaped space with a gracious goodbye.

  20. I have witnessed similar things in my career but never taken the time to write about them. Your post is heart-felt and superbly written. His peace and acceptance of death gives me hope x

  21. Lovely piece of writing Jo – when the time comes I’ll remember not to argue with the referee and leave the playing field with dignity. Your writing has ensured this gentleman is loved – you sound like a very special Doctor Jo x

  22. This brought tears – you are an amazing writer. What a wonderful gift this man gave you (and gave us) – wisdom that you can’t argue with the referee, and when the time comes you leave the playing field as a gentleman. He certainly did that. And you gave him a gift as well, don’t forget – you cared and sat with him and told his story to us. He isn’t forgotten as we’ll carry his story in our hearts.

  23. I must echoe the sentiments of the rest of those who commented, this is beautiful.. touching, heart breaking and wondrous all rolled into one….

  24. I hate death SO much and you see it all the time. It is beautiful though that the frequency hasn’t taken away the torment of it for you though. You did him justice with your words though and we now all mourn a great loss…
    Nicole x
    from MyIdealife

  25. As a Nurse who has sat next to people in their final moments when there is no-one else your writing stuck such a chord with me. So often I sit and wonder what their life might have been like, who loved them in their youth and why are they so alone now. I wanted to reach out and slap the Nurse you spoke about, it made me so mad, so cold, with the just another patient attitude 😦

    I wish there were more Dr’s like you in the world to work alongside. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    Rewind with Multiple Mum

  26. This was the first piece of your writing I read. I still await your next installments with excitement. This is indeed a beautiful post. Thanks so much for Rewinding this Weekend x

  27. What a beautiful way to remember this gentleman, with his head held high. And comforting to know that not all medical professionals see death as an interruption to their tea break. Love your writing.

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