Fifty years will carve a people-sized Grand Canyon into a person’s body and mind. Sure, the Colorado River took millions of years to gouge the real Grand Canyon out of the Arizona rock, but we’re softer and get hit with harsher stuff than water and wind.

My friend The Bean pointed this out to me, although she may not have meant to. She’s young and feisty and pregnant. The Bean has enthusiasm oozing from all her pores, even before she became a vessel for new life and the metaphorical hope for the future of all humanity. She also cooks a tasty Beef with Scallion and Mushroom Sauce.

This week The Bean said that there’s something strangely comforting in hearing your doctor say “That looks awful.” When her doctor says that, she knows she’s not complaining for no good reason. Plus, she loves her doctor, and that makes her observation more palatable. But I guarantee that I, being a generation older, would not find, “That looks awful,” comforting in any way at all. In fact, I might be inclined to do something rude with a tongue depressor, or at least make a cutting remark.

Annoying medical experiences have eroded me far longer than they have The Bean, and bad statements from doctors can find no welcome in the canyons of my psyche. I’m not criticizing my friend. When I was her age, I was the same damn way.

Another generation of living will dig the canyons deeper, and the patience for stupid medical remarks pretty much disappears. When a person of 75 years like my mom is lying in the hospital full of morphine with a condition no one has been able to diagnose for two months, and when the doctor unwraps the dressing, the words “Oh my God!” plunge to the bottom of the canyon to crash with a bitter thud. When every nurse and aide says roughly the same thing, then comfort, patience, and acceptance evaporate. Even a smile from the doctor and the words, “That sure is spreading,” only create the urge to rip the doctor’s heart out through his nose.

Of course, our reaction depends a lot on our proximity to Death, that snappy-dressing clump of fungus and slime. When you’re in the hospital you know you’re in Death’s stomping grounds, sort of like his favorite bar. At my age, when I go to the doctor, Death hangs out in the waiting room, feet on the couch and reading Guns and Ammo.  He wants to get the news right away. For The Bean, Death just runs his errands at the mall and maybe goes to see The Phantom Menace in 3D, trusting that she’ll call later if they need to have lunch.

But I think that Death’s distance is less important than how time has changed our understanding of the word “awful.” I’ve seen how people a generation ahead of me understand difficulty and suffering in a way that I can’t. I feel sorry for them, and to be honest I feel sorrier for myself knowing that I’m coming up behind them. On the other hand, The Bean is still young enough to feel comfort and even laugh at bad news. And in the end I feel happy that her canyon is shallow, and she hasn’t yet been kicked in a tender place quite as much as us old folks.

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