The Student and the Teacher
Today I sat at the feet of the teacher, once again absorbing lessons of great importance; not the lessons that you learn in books or labs or research institutions, but the lessons of life as they’re taught only through the wisdom of the dying.
Today I sat at the feet of one of the finest men I know; Dr. Robert McCullough who was the first full-time medical director at Haven Hospice. He is quite simply a remarkable human being, conducting his life’s close exactly as he wants it, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Just before Christmas I received a call from Dr. Bob informing me he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer with a sudden onset. He was just calling, he said, “people who have met so much to me in my life” to let them know. I could see his sweet, kind face in my mind’s eye as he calmly told me of the step-by-step plans he had taken to get things in order. He said that he hoped he could see me before he died.
For the past three weeks I have been acutely reminded of why I love this work. Being privileged to sit with someone facing death, someone who has no fear and speaks of the things that matter most in life, is a rare gift. Somehow, Dr. Bob and his wife have the idea that I am helping them by sitting with him while she runs her errands. What I so keenly realize is that I am the receiver of the care and the love and the wisdom he has to offer – and what a gift they have given me!
Today, as in each of the previous visits, I get to sit with Bob alone, without distraction. There is no need to fill the silence with trivia; I can simply be present with him. We talk of medical things only briefly – pain and bowel movements and nausea – but once those formalities are finished, he asks me to read poems by Mary Oliver. How can he know that Mary Oliver is my favorite poet, and one I’ve long neglected?
I begin with my favorite poem, Wild Geese. With his eyes closed and a small smile on his face he listens with his entire self. There are tears in his eyes as he asks me to read it once more. “How can a poet put so much beauty in one line?” he asks. I concur.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The next poem, Sleeping In The Forest, is so beautiful I can barely finish without my voice cracking. The opening lines are:
“I thought the earth remembered me,
She took me back so tenderly
Arranging her skirts
Her pockets full of lichens and seeds….”
I think of the beautiful earth, soon to be embracing Bob’s frailties and taking him back “…so tenderly”, and am near to weeping.
On this visit, I have the privilege of relieving Bob’s discomfort with a simple backrub. That humble action feels more like divine intervention flowing through my hands to this dear person whom I love. Last week it was a foot rub that he did not particularly enjoy. In today’s fast-paced electronic world, the power of human touch has been diminished. But the teacher allows me to be reminded today of the power of a poem and a simple back rub, and I am grateful.
People facing death can be our greatest teachers. Their lessons may not come with lightning speed, or in conventional ways. But they often come straight from the heart, and are more lasting than any other lessons we can learn.
Thank you Dr. Bob.