The Luminosity of Dusk: Portrait of a Healer in Illness

Sunset dims and colors our lives distinctively for each of us fortunate enough to have lived a certain number of years. For me, it became noticeable in my mid-fifties through less physical strength and decreased vision. For others, it is different.
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Sunset dims and colors our lives distinctively for each of us fortunate enough to have lived a certain number of years. For me, it became noticeable in my mid-fifties through less physical strength and decreased vision. Although it used to, my memory has not impressed anyone lately and never will again. Moments of laughter remain frequent but they are shorter. On balance, I am also fearful of a lot less and grateful for a lot more, while long sought wisdom eludes me still.

For my friend Pete, sunset began as a violent intrusion. He is a neurosurgeon. His patients and colleagues describe him as an exceptionally gifted physician. While thoroughly scientific, he connects with the practice of medicine more like an artist connects with inspiration. He is blessed with a rare intellectual and spiritual curiosity. Once at my invitation, he addressed my congregation during Lent on the physiology of fasting especially in the brain. It was absolutely fascinating.

As friends we share a deep love of nature and an admiration for the astonishing psychological depth of Russian writers. For both of us dogs are irresistible.

It was December 1 of last year, a Monday in late afternoon. I received a text from Pete describing the routine activity of looking at brain imaging. He had seen this kind of tumor so many times. He was familiar with its fierce destructive power. This time, however, was completely different because the imaged brain was his own. Pete knew precisely the road map of what was ahead. It was a kind of pathos you read in Dostoevsky: "There are things a man is afraid of telling even to himself."

Approximately six months before that fateful afternoon, a mutual and dear friend, whose husband suffered from the same kind of tumor, asked him: "Pete, if you were diagnosed with the same condition what would you do?" He answered: "I would be very tempted to have no treatment and go with my wife Stephanie to Paris and Italy and live the most enchanting and romantic weeks possible." He then added: "But we have three young daughters. We adore them and for them I would fight as hard as I can to stay with them as long as possible."

And so the battle began. The most powerful moment in marriage is when "I will love you and honor you in sickness and in health" becomes "promise kept." Instead of romance companion in Tuscany, Stephanie became comrade at arms. The medical battle has been courageous, aggressive, experimental, enlightened and bold. The team of physicians and nurses have been consistently brilliant. Almost 11 months after therapy began results have been, on balance, rewarding. The merciless brain cancer known as glioblastoma unites father, mother, and daughters in an intimacy of fear, hope, sadness, and laughter. Laughter plays a big role in their house. It heals them. It helps them penetrate more confidently the mystery of their lives, the, sometimes, tragic but always meaningful beauty of it all.

There is not a force in this world capable of breaking the bond of love among the five of them.

Pete is still a healer and a teacher. He shows every day that limiting the understanding of fullness of life to health and mobility is very superficial. Life is so much richer. Pope John Paul II had this profound insight: "The meaning of life has only one measure: the extent to which it is a gift unto others." Marriage is like that -- and so are family and medicine. Indeed our whole lives have the potential to be gifts to others including through illness and aging.

The man who performed extremely delicate surgeries in Iraq, Germany and Haiti with the Army now spends his days in his comfortable living room. He who recently competed in the most grueling mountain bike race in the U.S. now sits in a reclining armchair, covered with a cheerful blanket. Above him hangs a photograph of his three daughters, Giavanna, Marietta, and Isabella. With their winter clothing and the background snow, they remind me of the stunning daughters of Czar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra. Admirably cared for by Stephanie and surrounded by his daughters and his dogs, Pete is at peace. He smiles often. Other family members are also there and friends whose loyalty towards him has truly been unforgettable.

The two of us do not speak much about Russian literature any more. Yet he lives quietly the remarkable wisdom of Tolstoy: "The only certain happiness in life is to live for others." While Pete is sleeping God blesses him and those of us at his side.

After each visit, before leaving I look silently at Pete's gentle face. It is untouched by fear and untouched by pain. I find myself observing his life the way an impressionist painter studies the fading sunlight. It is soft but still bright. It is rich in color. It is the most magnificent light of the day.

Dr. Peter Sorini received his doctorate from Marquette University Medical School. His neurosurgery residency took place at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, AZ and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is currently Neurosurgeon and Chief Medical Officer at Anaconda Community Hospital, Mt. He is Colonel in the Army Reserves. He was recently distinguished with the prestigious Meritorious Service Award by the US Army.

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