“By his command these words are cut:
Cast a Cold Eye, on Life, on Death. Horseman pass by.”
“Under Ben Bulben”, by William Butler Yeats, inscribed on his tombstone.
Yeats has always been my favorite poet. From the full upper lip depicted in early photographs and paintings of him, to his unrequited love for Maud Gonne and his patriotism for Ireland—his very being and thus his poetry radiated passion. I named my first deerhound Aengus in his honor, from “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Ten years ago at Del Mar I placed a two dollar bet on an imported Irish turf filly called “Golden Apples” from the same poem, never raced in the United States. She went off at 80 to 1, started dead last, and thundered home to win by three lengths. I should have had more faith.
So I have never understood why a man of such extravagant emotion would insist that his gravestone be inscribed with a blunt command against emotion, against passion, against even stopping to consider the life lived so fully and buried in that ground. Was it regret at the end of his life? Was it a warning to those of us who feel too deeply, who care too much? Was it meant to be ironical, or perhaps even romantic—if ashes are ashes and dust is dust and love is over, what is the point of stopping to weep over a grave? I will never know.
What I do know is that my own life as a radiation oncologist is a daily struggle NOT to cast a cold eye. Thirty one years out from the beginning of my radiation oncology residency, I sometimes think I have seen it all, from the early stages of disease where I just KNOW that the patient will be fine, to the patient with late stage malignancy, where it would take a miracle to cure, or even help the patient, and miracles are in short supply. Some days I have to remind myself that even though I have given that speech about a particular disease and treatment options thousands of times, each new patient is hearing it for the very first time, and it is terrifying.
In the Jewish religion, these last ten days have marked the beginning of a New Year, and a time for repentance. I’ve never been a particularly observant person, but I do find the concepts of renewal and atonement useful both in my personal, and in my professional life. For the times when I was too rushed with my explanations, too self-absorbed or self-conscious for a healing touch, too worn out for sympathy, I am sorry. For the New Year, anno mundi 5774 on the Hebrew calendar, I pledge to try to never, ever cast a cold eye on life, or on death, and just pass on by.