Notes from a Healer

Like Tearing Up Children

Brian T. Maurer

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It’s been a busy morning, and I’m running behind. By the time I finally step into the next exam room the little girl has already fallen asleep in her grandmother’s lap.

The grandmother brought her in to the office with a mild fever, cough, congestion and runny nose. Amazingly, I am able to complete most of the examination without waking the child. In the end she stirs and opens her eyes before snuggling up against her grandmother once again.

The grandmother tells me that she and her husband are being forced to give their granddaughter up to the birth father, who is currently living in Arizona with another woman and her daughter from a previous liaison. The grandmother explains that the birth mother (her daughter) is an alcoholic. The fellow she’s been living with abused the little girl. When the birth mother refused to leave him, the state placed the little girl with the maternal grandparents, who have been rearing her for the past 18 months. Now they will have to give her up to a father she’s never known.

“We pleaded and pleaded with my daughter, but she likes her alcohol more than her own daughter,” the grandmother says. “Her brothers and sisters—my other kids—tried to talk some sense into her, but she won’t listen. I can’t believe she stayed with her boyfriend after what he did. She just can’t give him up.”

I offer her a tissue from the box on the counter.

“My husband is so upset. Every time he looks at her he cries. I just don’t know how he’s going to get through this. My daughter is tearing our whole family apart.”

I recall a segment from a TV documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill that I saw years ago. In an interview his widow described how she and O’Neill set about destroying sheaves of his unfinished work near the end of his life. “It was like tearing up children,” she said.

I stand by the sink, my hand resting on the child’s chart which lies open on the counter top. The grandmother sits in the chair not five feet away with the little girl’s body draped across her lap. She looks down at the sleeping child’s face. Frozen in a moment of time, the two of them become one, a Michelangelo rendition: Pietà — pity.

My daughter is tearing our whole family apart; she just can’t give him up. The old woman’s words echo inside my head. Sunday mass, the prayers of the people: I ask your prayers for all those in bondage to drugs and alcohol. Words, a litany of words, carefully rehearsed. I wonder how much magic they hold.

“What sort of relationship do you have with her father?” I ask.

“We’ve talked with him,” the grandmother says. “He says that we can visit her whenever we want, but Arizona is so far away....” Her voice drifts off, echoing through the recesses of the high-ceilinged room.

Heartbreak: a moment frozen in time. Michelangelo’s Pietà: heartbreak set in stone. O’Neill’s widow’s words: It was like tearing up children.

Some problems have no solutions.

It is not for nothing that a box of tissues also rests on the desk in my private office.


About the Author

  • Photo of Brian T. MaurerBrian T. Maurer has practiced pediatric medicine as a Physician Assistant for the past three decades.  As a clinician, he has always gravitated toward the humane aspect in patient care—what he calls the soul of medicine.  Over the past decade, Mr. Maurer has explored the illness narrative as a tool to enhance the education of medical students and cultivate an appreciation for the delivery of humane medical care.  His first book, Patients Are a Virtue, recently reviewed in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, is a collection of patient vignettes illustrating what Sir William Osler called “the poetry of the commonplace” in clinical medical practice. Interested readers can read more of the author's writings at his website and blog.

  • Published: June 1, 2011