It really is possible to find life amid the fear and pain of death.
Samuel LeBaron – a retired family physician, Stanford University professor, and one-time clinical psychologist – has collected his lessons from a lifelong dance with death into a profound memoir. Its title, Ordinary Deaths: Stories from Memory, may seem unpromising, but the vignettes LeBaron sketches in this book reveal rich layers of insight that celebrate life, no matter how fleeting.
As he is growing up in Alberta and Montana, LeBaron tries to make sense of the difference between life and death. Working as a clinical psychologist in a hospital, he helps people who are desperately ill connect to some sense of hope in seemingly hopeless situations. Later, he goes into family medicine, not just to cure people but to help them and his students at Stanford find the means to heal emotional wounds.
LeBaron is as sparing in his storytelling language as he is in his interventions as a clinician. He realizes that the path to wholeness must come from within each patient, not just from the interventions of doctors and nurses.
Living as we do in a culture that gazes rhapsodically on the vitality of youth, most of us won’t think seriously about our demise until the tick-tock of the windup clock begins to grow more faint. Not considering our mortality makes it all the more challenging to process psychologically when we are face to face with the inevitable.
Drawing on his experiences with patients of all ages and their loved ones, as well as his own lung cancer diagnosis, LeBaron gently but deliberately guides us beyond the curtain we keep drawn to shield us from the Grim Reaper’s gaze. This is a journey on unfamiliar ground, often shrouded in a fog of dread and despair and all too frequently riddled with pain. LeBaron’s recollections brim with emotional insights, celebrate the virtue of honesty between caregiver and patient, and authentically depict the value of letting each person find their particular way to peace and acceptance.
Whether it’s the heartache of young parents coming to accept that their little baby was born too prematurely to stay alive or a young girl enduring her final battle with leukemia, LeBaron does not spare us from any sympathetic tears for lives not fully lived. But he redeems these circumstances by showing us what it looks like to celebrate the gift of even the briefest of lives.
Some of LeBaron’s deepest insights come as he revisits his childhood memories and fragments of his dreams to give us a sense of continuity between his parents’ love and his own experiences as a father and caregiver.
The deaths we read about here are ordinary, but only to the extent that we will all reach that point one day. What should be ordinary – but often isn’t – is finding a way to accept the inevitable with a sense of inner peace. Ordinary Deaths reminds us that each individual’s path to death is as different and unique as their own life has been. In our death-denying world, that is extraordinary indeed.