CHARLES may have been dying, but he could still play a mean game of chess.
As I set down the chessboard, he growled in his Scottish drawl: “White on right”. I turned the board 90 degrees and started to arrange the pieces, duly humbled.
This was a deliberate strategy on his part to make you feel unnerved. He could have turned the board himself and saved my embarrassment, but in his mind the game had already started.
The Moreton Bay fig outside allowed only dappled light to hit the stained glass of the window we played under. Very old school — very Charles. The fig and the garden around it now dominated his ever diminishing world. He had always loved his garden.
He had also always loved his wife. Their relationship was a thing of beauty that had stood the test of time. She was class — quiet and elegant, her softness providing the chiaroscuro that gave their relationship form.
As she set down the coffee, Charles made his usual start. Like so many, his game revealed the player. Aggressive starts, bluff and bluster, but subtlety behind it all. He usually had my mark, and so it was again that day, the last time we played.
The palliative nurse would visit Charles and give me a call afterwards, advising on progress and requesting scripts. Charles would never do anything she or her colleagues suggested without checking with me first, which was annoying. The nurses knew a mile more that I did, but that didn’t matter to him.
I was like one of his old wharfie mates who had been through previous battles with him. I had his trust, his hard earned respect — in medicine, if not in chess.
For such a gruff man, it was surprising to see the quantity and quality of those who visited him, who supported him through those months, who turned up to his funeral. Beyond his family, the respect he commanded echoed through his social circles. His social ecology was as well tended as his garden.
It was a long time ago, but Charles was one of those patients who sticks in the mind. The type of patient with whom a shared understanding develops, often facilitated through shared traumatic experiences — fear, pain, loss or death, followed by recovery or acceptance.
On the rollercoaster of life we sometimes need a passenger, and sometimes that passenger is the family doctor.
After the drama, things may settle. Life may return to normal for a while. Yet, the connection, that mind-to-mind link, remains, broadband and resolute.
It is these special connections that define and distinguish my profession like no other.
Broader in scope than the specialist physician or surgeon, more personal than the psychologist, more longitudinal than the palliative care physician, yet more detached than loved ones, we are given a precious gift; a holistic view of humanity over the lifespan.
A gift I, for one, will always be grateful for.
Dr James Best is a GP practising in Sydney and is a former winner of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioner General Practice Supervisor of the Year Award.