In the midst of recounting her progressive, ominous signs and symptoms of leukemia, Mary opened her oversized pocketbook, took out a wrinkled, brown paper bag, and placed it on the writing table that separated us in the examining room.
I stopped talking, intrigued at how she was affectionately patting the bag. Pointing at the bag, she said, “Please.” I stared at the bag, then opened it and took out a beautiful, green glass bell. Finding it impossible to resist though in a professional office setting, I rang it and the bell produced a sweet, melodious sound. “One of my favorites,” Mary sighed. I recalled this must be one of Mary’s precious, antique bells she had been collecting for 50 years.
I gently pushed the bell across the table toward Mary. She pushed the bell emphatically back toward me. “It’s yours.”
I was puzzled. I knew Mary had spoken of giving her prized collection to her family after she died.
Mary continued, “I don’t have much time left, not with getting blood each week and platelets almost every other day! I’ve given my house and all my money to my kids, but it hasn’t made a difference how they treat me. They never call or come over. I’ve been left all alone. I want to give my remaining treasures to those who love me.”
Mary added with a smile, “Consider it a Christmas present. I’m giving my bells to those who love me. Then I won’t have to do any Christmas shopping this year, my last Christmas.”
I asked Mary if anyone had not abandoned her. She sighed, “A few friends, you, and, of course, God.” She added, “God said ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ ” (Joshua 1:5). “That’s from the Bible,” Mary reminded me, “And He hasn’t. But aren’t they — my daughters and their husbands — made in God’s image?” (Genesis 1:26). I nodded with understanding, so she went on, “Then why can’t they act a little more like Him, especially when their mother is dying?”
What more was there to say? As it was time again to undertake the arduous routine of transfusions that was prolonging her life, Mary gripped the arms of the chair resolutely but could not move. I crossed over to Mary to help. She winced with pain as I grasped her frail, thin arm covered with large tender purple bruises and lifted her up. I apologized and she smiled tenderly. Mary could hardly stand without assistance, having lost so much muscle mass and tone.
As I gazed at her, I wished Mary’s family could have recognized that Mary too was made in God’s image, even though she was now gravely ill. Because we reflect His inherent image, we are told God crowned mankind “with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).
Since Mary reflected God’s character, was not Mary as glorious and honorable — even beautiful — as God, even now? Was not Mary therefore worthy of honor and love and respect?
Mary’s bell has sat on a side table in my dining room for the last 25 years. I have had a number of memorable gifts given to me as a physician. I have already written in these columns about some of them, and there are others to come.
But Mary’s present is bittersweet. I would not remove it from my dining room if I could. It reminds me too much of Mary’s poignant situation, cast off from her family as she slowly slipped toward death from leukemia, refractory to treatment.
It is Christmas time again and I will ring Mary’s bell Christmas Eve as I did the first time when Mary presented it to me. It reminds me how we should treat our family, friends, acquaintances, and even those we do not like because we all are made in God’s image.
As it rings, I hear Mary’s bell peal out the message the angels proclaimed with the birth of Jesus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). I ring Mary’s bell each year so I will remember to offer good will to all this season and all year long.
Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, writer, playwright and director, and consultant to the Department Of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.