Steve's Plastic Lawn: A Dying Man's Tribute to His Wife

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc


May 19, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. I'm David Kerr, professor of cancer medicine from University of Oxford. As with most of my colleagues now, my clinics are delivered from the kitchen table. So I'm taking a moment from my clinic to tell you about a discussion I just had with a patient I've known for a long time.

This is a man with advanced metastatic colorectal cancer, the staple of our clinic in many ways, and someone I've looked after for years. But he's entering that final circuit, that last lap, now that conventional treatment has failed. He's not interested in trying any other experimental treatments or trials, and he's very comfortable just now. He has a decent performance status and is managing most things, albeit at a relatively low level, but he has a good quality of life.

Today we had the most extraordinary discussion about his garden, which he's terribly proud of. For all the years I've helped look after him, this has been a recurrent topic of conversation: How is the garden? We discuss the changes in the seasons and that ecclesiastical sense about there being a time for all things — seasons for all men, one might say.

Now he has done the most remarkable thing with this garden. He worked out that he has months of life left, and to prepare for the maintenance of the garden, he dug up his beloved lawn. For those of you who are not from the United Kingdom, there is something about lawns that is particularly relevant and important to the English gentleman of a certain age. Anyway, he dug up his lawn and has replaced it with some form of AstroTurf, some type of pretend grass. What a remarkable thing to do.

He's taken up this grass he's tended for years — he's probably shown more love to his lawn than he has to the family. I'm quoting him now, rather than guessing that. And he's taken this final step as a way to start making the large garden more manageable for his wife when he's gone. There's something about the immutable, eternal nature of plastic grass, perhaps. So he was waxing lyrical about it and how it would make life much easier for his wife.

But didn't she have a word to say in this? I asked.

Perhaps every time she cut the grass, she'd think of him. Perhaps the real grass lawn would have been a lasting memorial to who he was and what he did. But no, no, they both decided that they wanted something that was effective and simple to care for but would in some ways last longer; we're back to these feelings of eternal memories and so on.

It made me smile: the prospect that, as an act of love, he gave up something that he loved, his grassy lawn. In some way, it's a sort of tribute or memorial to him — not a headstone, not a statue, not a complex Christian cross or whatever other symbol of religion those of us might follow, but rather the immutable simplicity of a plastic lawn. That encapsulated him and his love for his wife.

So I wonder, what would you do? What do you want to leave of yourself? What lasting memorial would you want to leave for your wife, your family, your partner? Could anyone do better than Steve's plastic lawn? Thanks for listening to my ramblings. For the time being, my Medscapers, over and out.

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc, is a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford. He is recognized internationally for his work in the research and treatment of colorectal cancer and has founded three university spin-out companies: COBRA Therapeutics, Celleron Therapeutics, and Oxford Cancer Biomarkers. In 2002, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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