Body and Soul

“I’ve had enough,” Albert said, “can’t you just give me the morphine and let me go?”

We sat behind a curtained wall in a sleeping ward. I had watched stories like this in hospital dramas, stories where patients whispered for an end to their misery and begged compassion from a soap opera doctor. I had watched them through doubtful, distracted eyes and yet I had somehow found myself in a scene for which there was no script and no well-rehearsed lines for me to deliver to the camera.

Albert looked up. “No one would know,” he said.

He was right.

No one would.

Albert was dying. He had been bled and photographed and analysed and a formulary of expensive drugs ribboned through his veins. Above our heads, people had discussed him in front of projector screens and counted out his life in milligrams and micrograms, and shifted the weight of expensive educations to explain him away.

Yet despite all this, Albert continued to die.

And no one knew why.

I held the syringe in my hand and he watched me with beaten eyes.

“I’m just so tired,” he said.

“I can’t, Albert.” I heard my words and the sound forced me to look away. “I can’t make decisions like that. No one can play God.”

He looked at drip stands which crouched over him like watchful servants and monitors which measured the grip by which he held on to this world.

“Can they not?” he said.

We didn’t need the x-rays and the CT scans and the blood results.

Albert had simply given up.

They were reluctant to allow him the courtesy of dying. Medicine is rarely troubled by death, but it becomes very anxious when patients die without explicit permission. Eventually, however, Albert was granted his wish, and the monitors and the drip stands and the projector screens were taken away and he was moved to a side room and allowed to wait for God.

Albert’s wife Pearl was wheeled in each day from her nursing home. She was lost in a mist of powder and bewilderment and sat by her husband’s bedside as he drifted away and out of her life.

Each time I passed his room, I looked in at them. Their hands held each other in resignation and Pearl rested her head on Albert’s chest. They looked like teenagers, folded into each other’s arms, but instead of starting a life together, I knew they lay in wait for sixty years of marriage to end.

But there are some things which medicine can’t explain.

There are some things which can’t be measured in milligrams and micrograms and there are some things which can’t be scanned and photographed and projected onto a computer screen.

And very slowly, Albert began to get better.

I wish I could tell you what Pearl said to him. I wish I could bring you the magic which gave him back his hope, but each time I passed their room, neither of them were speaking and I wonder if, after sixty years of marriage, words had become unnecessary.

All I know is that the more I see of medicine, the more I am convinced that the greatest healing properties of all lie in the act of human kindness.

A few days later, I walked past Albert’s room. I looked in to speak, but he was too occupied to notice and I smiled to myself.

I smiled all the way down the corridor. I smiled as I walked through rooms full of expensive scanners and past a pharmacy which heaved with clever drugs and I especially smiled as I looked into fattened consultation rooms and breathed their air of self-importance.

I smiled because Albert was reading.

And I smiled because it was a very thick book.


  1. October 23, 2011 / 8:20 pm

    Only You could make a 48 year old man weep in the middle of the afternoon… Bravo and Cheers, there is a smile on my face and my heart is full :o)

  2. October 23, 2011 / 8:25 pm

    Oh, this left me smiling so much. And yes, kindness does have great healing powers, and one doesn’t need to fill a prescription for it in the pharmacy.

    Lovely post, Joanna!

  3. October 23, 2011 / 8:38 pm

    What a beautiful story.

    I totally agree with you about the power of human kindness.

    • Clare
      October 23, 2011 / 8:54 pm

      Jo, you’ve done it again and moved me to tears with the beauty of your writing. How important it is that we accept that medicine does not hold all the answers; that humans have powers of healing that are not measurable; that we don’t need to play God, we just have to be human; that we’ll never know all the answers but that doesn’t matter; that sometimes words are redundant and just being is enough.

      Your posts invariably move me because they are a reminder of the importance of empathy, compassion and communication – qualities that have, too often, been replaced with pills and procedures.

      Thank you for being you.

  4. October 23, 2011 / 8:54 pm

    I’m crying. Thank you.

  5. October 23, 2011 / 9:06 pm

    Huzzah! Albert give hope to us all. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. October 23, 2011 / 9:37 pm

    I think you should be put in charge of the NHS, it would make the world a better place. Oh, and your writing is exquisite!

  7. October 23, 2011 / 9:59 pm

    I’ve missed your stories, it’s been too long.Yes I’ve cried again. Jo, you are an amazing writer and are the reason that I started writing my blog.I wanted to try and make people feel the way you make me feel when I read your writng. If I’m ever a tiny bit as good as you I’ll die a happy woman.Please keep the stories coming. x

  8. Cindy
    October 23, 2011 / 10:00 pm

    awww Jo….so very nice!! 🙂

  9. October 23, 2011 / 11:23 pm

    Beautiful again. Everything you write – beautiful.

  10. Alan
    October 23, 2011 / 11:59 pm

    Another beautiful post – there are so many “lump-in-the-throat” moments in this one!

  11. October 24, 2011 / 6:21 am

    A powerful and succinct story. You raise so may complex issues in a few lines anad write it so beautifully.

  12. October 24, 2011 / 6:32 am

    Thanks Joanna – my father needed this.

  13. Sue
    October 24, 2011 / 7:37 am

    Wonderful again and so uplifting. You have that special writer’s ability to come up with wonderfully descriptive phrases that make the reader see through your eyes. I especially liked “… lost in a mist of powder and bewilderment…” in this one. I’m also glad there are some happy endings – it is good to start my day with a smile.

  14. October 24, 2011 / 8:22 am

    This is lovely.

    And I wish it were always like this. When my father was dying my brother (a farmer) said he’d be prosecuted if he let an animal suffer like that. My other brother (a solicitor) insisted that the law dictated nothing more could be done.

    But for today I’ll cling onto your happier ending.

  15. alisonwells
    October 24, 2011 / 2:32 pm

    Another touching story, so lovely and yes in this case a wonderful turnaround although all the questions of when people should be allowed to go still linger. I loved your comment about it being a very thick book.

  16. October 24, 2011 / 6:45 pm

    Amazing – but so right on the nail. A stroking caress on the back of my hand by my wife of 58 years worked wonders’

  17. Christine Stanley
    October 24, 2011 / 7:26 pm

    Another deeply moving and thought-provoking post. Thank you so much for sharing.0

  18. Mike Jarman
    October 27, 2011 / 7:15 pm


  19. November 16, 2011 / 6:39 am

    This is simply gorgeous and it made me smile a lot. Love it!

  20. November 18, 2011 / 9:19 pm

    I am smiling too. Beautiful! I’m so glad he has chosen to pick a very thick book. 🙂

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