I’ve learnt a lot of things from a lot of people, living and dead. But I often feel that it was in the (fictional) death of Ray Bradbury‘s Grandma that I learnt some of the most important.
Ray Bradbury was often characterised as a Science Fiction writer, and I don’t think this bothered him as much as it does me – that sort of snobbishness that says that people who write about Mars inhabit a different world and have little to teach us about our own world. (Not realising, of course, that the Martian Chronicles is both about Mars and about what it means to be human.) In any case, it is hard to see how Dandelion Wine can be classified as science fiction. It’s a thinly disguised autobiography about young Douglas Spaulding whose summer sees lots of monumental events, including his realisation that he’s mortal, that you can bottle memories – the dandelion wine of the title – and the death of his great grandmother.
The segment about the death was written as short stories, both “Goodbye Grandma” and “The Leaving”, but fits beautifully into the book. You can read the whole chapter here although I suspect that it won’t be there forever. For me, though, the perfection comes in the first paragraph, where, after a list of all the wonderful things grandma did, she is described as follows:
“Waking, she touched people like pictures, to set their frames straight.”.
For me this is as near a perfect description of a good human experience, and the ideal of good medicine as is possible.
There are some of us who take down picture frames, and break them apart and fix them. The world needs orthopaedic surgeons, and the hip replacement is a truly life-changing operation. But for others of us, we see people whose frames are just a little wonky. So, reflect on how you straighten a picture. You note that it is wonky. You gently touch two of the corners, and straighten it. And then you step away. This bit is very, very important. Stepping away allows you the opportunity to see that you’ve done the right thing – or perhaps the wrong thing. It also gives you the space to see if you’re needed any more – if you’ve engineered your own irrelevance. Sometimes it is necessary to step back in, touch lightly, and then stand back again. But not often.
On a good day, my clinic is a corridor along which I wander, touching pictures, trying to set frames straight, and when I look back, they mostly are.
Have a read of the short story, but make sure you’ve got some tissues, unless you have a heart of stone. There are many other things that I’ve learned from this story, but this one will do for now.