“The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty” by Elizabeth Silver— Uncertainties

Silver, Elizabeth. “The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty”, Penguin Press, 2017.


Amos Lassen

Because Elizabeth L. Silver grew up as the daughter of a dedicated surgeon, she possessed an unquestioned faith in medicine. But then her six-week-old daughter, Abby, was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with sudden seizures, and scans revealed a serious brain bleed, her relationship towards medicine began to move in a different direction.

Abby’s first year was one of unending tests, doctors’ opinions, sleepless nights, promising signs and steps backward, and above all, uncertainty that came from the mysterious circumstances of Abby’s hospitalization. There were dozens of specialists, none of whom can offer a conclusive answer about what went wrong or what will be in the future. Writer Silver explores what it means to cope with uncertainty as a patient and as a parent. She seeks peace in the reality that Abby’s injury may never be fully understood and she looks beyond her own story for comfort, exploring literature and religion and examining medicine throughout history. Her book is the result of that and it is a “blend of personal narrative and cultural analysis, a parent’s struggle and a wise meditation on the reality of uncertainty, in and out of medicine, and the truth that time is often its only cure”.

This is a story about being a parent tat reminds us that life is never a certainty and medicine has boundaries. The tincture of time of the title is what it takes for most ailments to resolve one way or another. We can compare this to waiting for antibiotics to heal or for a cut to form a scab or the wait for death to take the person. Time is relative depending on the ailment and for Silver and her daughter is a long, long time.

The center of the book is Abby’s illness and medical problems but this is a book about so much more. We learn about the history of fever, about cysts in the brain, about baking challah for Shabbat.

When Abby at six-weeks old, develops what appear to be seizures, Silver and her physician husband bring her to the emergency room and learn from a CT that there has been a stroke, Abby begins an extended and bewildering period of medical activity. Anxiety continues every moment in Abby’s parents’ lives. They go through the mental trauma which is the result from the very real possibility that their beloved baby may die.

Silver is a writer and lawyer who is able to cope with the stress by writing everything down and with close attention to detail. Finally Abby is declared completely healthy, after a final neurological evaluation. The message that we get here in this very sensitive book is that hope provides the best healing.

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