a story about a pen

letting go

I do not have a recipe for you today, though I will have one for you soon. First, I must tell you a story about a pen. I wasn’t planning on telling any pen stories, because who tells stories about pens? But then I started writing, and this is what needed to come out. A story about a pen.

Or maybe it’s just a story about loss.

*   *   *   *   *

I lost my favorite pen two days ago. When I left my clinic the evening before, I had left it there, on accident. I knew that it was there; I realized it as soon as I walked out of the building to head to my office, in another building. I stopped walking when I thought of it. I paused on the sidewalk, and patients who were leaving their various appointments had to walk around me.

My pen, I thought. I should go back for it.

But…no. Who goes back for a pen? That would be ridiculous. I would not go back into the building, up the stairs, through the clinic space and into the doctors’ workroom…just for a pen. I would have gone back for my wallet, or my ID badge, but not for a silly pen. So I did not go back.

I had left my favorite pen in my white coat pocket; the upper left one, along with a couple of other black-ink pens, the same pocket I keep my iPhone and reading glasses in when I’m seeing patients in clinic. And if it wasn’t there, I could swear I left it right on the desk, nestled up next to the keyboard.

My pen is a black fountain pen, a Pilot Vanishing Point with a blue ink cartridge inside. It’s an expensive pen, the most expensive pen I own, and certainly the most expensive pen I’ve ever brought to work. The point on the pen is very fine, and writing with it is addictive. The pen’s nib glides across paper without a hitch, leaving a smooth line of ink in its wake. It feels good in my hand, and it makes me want to write.

The following morning, after first attending a 7:30 a.m. conference, I walked over to my clinic. When I arrived at my desk, I leaned over the desk chair to put my bag on the floor, and I noticed that there were only two pens in my coat pocket, neither of which was my favorite pen. I tried not to panic. I followed my usual routine – I removed my cell phone and my reading glasses from my bag and placed them on the desk. I draped the lanyard holding my ID badge around my neck, while I waited for my computer to wake up. I lifted the keyboard to check underneath. No pen. I looked behind the computer monitor, and I pushed the rolling chair back from the desk and looked underneath, but no pen.

It was gone. My pen must have been stolen, right out of my coat, or right off my desk. Maybe the janitorial staff did it? A sense of loss overcame me. My pen was gone, and I had been so careless as to bring it to work, to think that I could use it in a crowded clinic, with doctors and staff in and out all day long, without losing it.

I realized then exactly how important that pen had become to me.

Half and hour later, or maybe less, my nurse, Eric, appeared at my side, as he often does, to see if I needed anything. I probably should have told him about the patient who needed to be called about some test results, or about the upcoming chemotherapy plan on that other patient, or an update on another patient who’d developed a recurrence.

Instead, I said, “I lost my pen.” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice.

I described my pen to him, and how it was really no big deal (it was), but I’d really love it if someone turned found it and turned it in. He remembered it. He had seen it, when I left the pen lying on my desk at some point, and he’d used it to sign something. He remarked on how nice the pen wrote.

Eric turned to leave the room, promising to let me know if it turned up, and I turned back to my computer screen. A patient’s record was on the screen, but in my head I was berating myself for being so stupid, for bringing that pen to work. I mean, really. Who needs a nice writing pen when the clinic uses an electronic medical record? I couldn’t believe I’d been so dumb.

“Is this it?” my nurse asked, turning back to me from the doorway. He was holding up a distinctive black pen – my pen! – that he’d just picked up off another desk near the workroom door.

I did not hug Eric, but I wanted to and I should have.

*   *   *   *   *

A couple of weeks ago, which was about a month after my father died of the stroke, I had a night of fitful dreams. This was not uncommon then. Nor is it uncommon now.

But that night, my father was there, in his hospital bed, in the nursing home right next to the hospital in which I work. Even though he was completely disabled in my dream, just as he was at the end, he was fully aware – of his condition, of his impending death, of me, and of my grief at losing him slowly (or maybe not so slowly) to dementia. In life, he had not had that awareness. In life, he had denied his dementia thoroughly and adamantly. But the father who returned to me in my dream was completely aware. In that dream, he and I both knew what was coming.

In my dream, I knew that he and I would go through his death again, and it would be just as hard to lose him a second time, if not harder. There was a sense of urgency, of time passing at triple speed, of time running out.

In the dream, my father wanted me to find a fountain pen. He needed me to find a specific pen, one he had been searching for. This pen he wanted me to find was to be for me, though, not for him. He needed me to have it before he died. In that dream, I was with him at one moment, and in the next, I was in an antique shop or in a thrift shop, looking through boxes and bags and drawers of old pens. They were all fountain pens, these pens, and I knew that was the kind of pen Dad wanted me to find. In one dust-covered shoebox filled with old pens and half-filled ink bottles, I found it. I held up the pen, a black fountain pen with a shiny, silver nib – yes, this was the one Dad wanted. I needed to get it to him before time ran out.

And then I woke up.

The next day, I bought a fountain pen online. It was an impulsive decision, just like getting a new kitten. But it felt right, just like the kitten did, and in my dream, my father had wanted me to have a fountain pen.

The pen came in the mail a couple of days later. I fell in love with it immediately. Writing with it feels luxurious. The words seemed to flow more easily out of my head and onto the paper. It is heavy in my hand, with a weight that feels comfortable and comforting.

The silliest thing of all? I feel connected to my father when I write with this pen.

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14 Responses to “our last words”

  1. Janis — February 24, 2015 @ 9:12 pm

    You know I love your writing. It is just something you keep telling yourself. Let that part go.

  2. Maggie — February 24, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

    You know, your are always on my mind. Especially now.

  3. Liz Larkin — February 24, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

    I know exactly what you mean, MJ. I love your writing. Even the sad stuff. Don’t stop.

  4. Whitney — February 24, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

    That hit me in the gut. You are a beautiful writer, and I feel your pain,  literally and figuratively. I am so sorry for your loss, and I help writing this will heal some of your pain.

  5. Flavia — February 25, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    I am keeping you in my thoughts and prayers, MJ.  Sending you love and strength, my friend.

  6. Colleen — February 25, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

    Thank you for sharing how you are feeling in such clear and wonderful words. I lost my brother a few months ago and find myself constantly experiencing those moments of realization that he is no longer here. It’s nice to know that this is “normal.” It sounds like you had a wonderful father, and I’m sure you meant the world to him.

  7. Gail — February 25, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

    A first anniversary I wish no one had to acknowledge.  


  8. Cherie — February 25, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

    Oh my dear what a terrible burden you’re putting on yourself.  It must be so hard to experience all this as a doctor yourself, feeling that somehow you should have known, should have done, should have said.  Of course you know in your head that none of this is your fault and that even medicine is not an exact science.  But your poor heart.   I hope writing it down, sharing it, has helped it ease it’s grip on you some small amount.  

    Sending thoughts of peace

  9. Frances in TX — February 25, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

    Remembered feelings around a parent’s death are always tough; I can’t say they go away. But we’re stronger than we think and can grow through the love and support others give us. You are fortunate to receive them from your family and your online dedicated family of readers. Thank you for your beautiful writing. 

  10. Eileen — February 25, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

    It’s human nature to look for someone to blame when something goes wrong – even if it’s our own selves. Try to let it go. Your father would be sad to know you’re wrestling with this guilt. Signed, one of your biggest fans 🙂

  11. Sorry you’re even in this position to be acknowledging this sad say MJ. What a beautifully written piece. Your dad knows you (and everyone) did the best they could. And now, he is at peace XO

  12. Paula — February 26, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

    To you, your family and especially your Mom, I wish for you strength and peace.  xo

  13. GeekKnitter — February 26, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

    Such a heavy burden you’ve picked up and carried for so long. Set it down MJ, try to set it down.

    If I tell you that it will get easier to live in a world without your father will you believe me? It’s all right if you don’t, I didn’t believe that a world without my mother was any place I wanted to be either. February 27 may never be just a normal day for you, any more than January 2 will ever be just another day for me, but I promise you, absolutely promise, that it will get better. Peace to you and your family.

  14. Cheryl — February 27, 2015 @ 8:53 am

    Last night as we crawled into bed my husband and I remarked that it was the day, to the day, of his father’s death. 11 years ago. Some times it feels like yesterday and the emotions are raw, other times we can’t believe it was so long ago. We can both remember every single thing about that day – calling the ambulance and the family, the look in his eyes when we knew he was gone, throwing up in the trauma room, the face of the ER doc who happens to be a friend, the snow falling as we drove home.

    But I can tell you this. You will likely never forget those things, but one day they won’t be the things you think of. You’ll have to consciously pull those memories up. 

    These moments are like telling the despondent high school kid lamenting his life that it does indeed get better. We all know that but there is no way they can see that. Having lived through that with both our fathers, it certainly feels that way when you are in the role of the high school kid. But one day, indeed, it will get better. The questions and doubt will melt away and the memories that hit you when least expected are the laughs, the tickles, the conversations.


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