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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

On sunny mornings, I wake up sweating. Shards of light cut through the blinds, which always seem egregiously unprepared for their one and only task. The sun overpowers the AC and coats my apartment in a colour that one might call “golden,” but which to me seems more like the colour of jaundice or the straw-coloured fluid that I sometimes drain from my patients’ abdomens. I hate sunny days.

I knew this window faced east when I signed the lease, but that was done hastily the night after a major breakup. Maybe the sun in the morning would make me happier, I remember thinking as I moved in my boxes.

It didn’t. While I’m generally a happy person, this is despite, not because of, the sun. Every morning, I leave my overheated apartment and get into my car, which, as a home-visiting palliative-care doctor, is also my office. The sun gets in my eyes as I drive through the treeless, arid sidewalks of Toronto. In the summer, shady parking spots are hard to find, so when I get back into my navy hatchback, the black dashboard holds the heat like a stone kept in a fireplace, simmering the air around my face. I roll down the windows and crank the AC like the worst global citizen. Sometimes, I can still smell the faint odour of the bottle of red wine that a patient once gave me, which subsequently boiled and exploded in the back seat on a particularly hot day two summers ago. It turns out that the sun can lay bare the things we might prefer to forget.

As a kid, a sunny weekend morning meant that I would have to spend it outside, playing games with my cousins or exploring the forests around the log house that my parents built. Sounds bucolic, except for a moody 11-year-old who just wants to practise the piano, lie still until the end of the novel or watch The Sound of Music, again. The sun was a hot poker, prodding me outside into the harsh brightness. The cloudy day, meanwhile, brought sweet relief. I would wrap myself in the indoors, watching the world from behind a pane of glass.

I have always told myself that my love of the cloudy day is just an excuse to be lazy. But as I’m cresting my mid-30s, I’ve started to wonder if this isn’t something more existential. Why am I the only person I know who smiles with relief when I wake up to the rain?

The answer comes to me while I’m standing beside my car on a sunny summer day. My jeans are suddenly too thick. I wish I had worn a short-sleeve shirt. There is a hot wind that makes my smiling hospital ID badge shudder.

I have just come from the house of a patient. A young woman – far too young to be seeing a doctor like me. She was lying in a single bed, by the window of a small, bright room. The sun sent a sharp angle of yellow light across her fading body. She was too weak to do anything but stare at the ceiling. I asked, quietly, how she was feeling. She shifted her eyes to me, then shifted them back to the ceiling, then closed them. She was done, she said. She was so, so tired. There was nothing else giving her quality of life. My eyes scanned hers so that they could match whatever was behind them. I compressed myself. We were both quiet. We didn’t smile. There wasn’t room for lightness here. My questions were muted. The timbre of my voice adapted to hers – low, thoughtful. We had the same furrowed eyebrows. We just sat, absorbing the sad silence, because that’s all I felt we could really do.

This, we are taught in palliative care, is mirroring – an empathic posture in which we adapt our behaviour to the mood in the room. We leave space for difficult emotions instead of bulldozing them with the cheerful platitudes that medicine often adopts. We adjust our internal dimmer switches so that we don’t blind anyone with our lightness.

But the sun doesn’t get that, I realize now as I squint up at it. The sunny day – this garishly, extravagantly, preposterously sunny day – doesn’t understand that it is flaunting its vitality in our faces, that its vibrance is casting the tragedy of this situation in too-sharp relief.

I don’t know whether my patient loves the sun – I hope she does, because surely the world owes her some small mercy today. But for me, the sun isn’t leaving any space to feel the empty, hopeless sadness of this moment. It is demanding to be celebrated, insisting that I rejoice in its warmth, when all I want to do is sit down, heavily, on the pavement.

I get why people need the sun – even I, pale and perspiring, enjoy it from time to time. The sun makes the green world thrive and thaws you when your life-worn body is cold and taut. The warmth lets you sit in parks with people you love, as you move through the world unbundled and unguarded.

But you can still look forward to the cloudy day. It won’t tell you to smile when you don’t want to. It leaves room for you to sit with all of those difficult but necessary human emotions – hopelessness, grief, anxiety – that you might usually try to brighten with artificial filters. The cloudy day reminds you that life doesn’t always go on, but it holds you gently while it delivers this bad news.

Joshua Wales lives in Toronto.