The closest thing to praying

There are many things to consider when you’re sitting at home recuperating from a broken hand and ankle. For instance, there are the leaves. Most of them are down now, forming a thick crunchy carpet in the yard. This year, despite the good fall weather, I won’t be able to do the leaves of course. You can’t rake and bag and heave sacks of leaves into a pickup truck with a cast on your right hand and leg.

At this point I can’t drive either. I can’t take a load of leaves to the local landfill, nor can I drive the six hours to Pennsylvania to visit my good friend and medical mentor one last time.

I emailed him earlier this month to tell him about my hiking accident and tedious recovery. Over the past three months through fits and starts he was struggling to recover from open heart surgery and a concomitant exacerbation of lymphoma. He replied to my extensive narrative with only two words: “Trade you.”

I was thinking about him earlier this week with every intention of writing him again when an e-mail from his son popped into my Inbox this morning. “My father was hospitalized again for spiking fevers. Those abated, but his mental confusion persists. Part of the problem may have been the heavy doses of medication used to sedate him. His mental state currently ranges from confusion to agitation, interspersed with moments of lucidity. They transferred him to hospice yesterday. No one knows how long he’ll last.”

You never know about these things. Although my friend could wax and wane over an undetermined period of time, my intuition tells me that he won’t last long.

Thirty years ago when I was a student and later an employee at the clinic where he worked, he and I became good friends. One of his hobbies was photography; another was flying. On his 30th birthday he invited me to go soaring with him. A small Cessna towed our sailplane up to 3000 feet before my mentor pulled the knob on the instrument panel, detaching the tow line from the nose of the glider, and we began our silent descent through the clouds. “It’s the closest thing I know to praying,” he told me as the air rushed over the long narrow wings just outside the cockpit.

Later he purchased his own airplane, a small Aeronca with conventional landing gear and tail wheel. He would take me up high above the local airport to do acrobatics in the bright blue autumn sky: inside loops, Cuban 8s, barrel rolls and spins.

He also taught me a lot of medicine. He, the established physician, working just a little bit ahead of me, the student. Together we saw the gamut of everything from office-based obstetrics, gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry and adult medicine. He gave me a long leash on which to learn. I will always be thankful for the solid grounding in general medicine that I received under his tutelage.

Now he lies in a hospice bed faraway in another state, while I’m confined to the few rooms in my second story garret, relying on a set of crutches and a platform walker for support. Over the next several weeks one of us will heal; the other will take his place among those past practicing physicians who now belong to the ages.

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