This summer

Granddaughter,
For two years we have not seen your face.

The fireflies returned this June,
Flashing silent semaphores at eventide,
But this summer we have not seen your face.

In the bayou by the brook below the bridge
Frogs croak and splash in still green water
At the slightest approach,
But this summer we have not seen your face.

Swifts dance on drafts of early morning air
Over the blue and white-trimmed house,
While nighthawks dart above the river;
High in the trees the orioles sing their fluid arias—

But this summer
In the eaves of the ancient shed
Adjacent the churchyard
The swallows have not returned to nest.

7/1/2014

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Catch me up in your story

Remarks at the recent wedding of a son and daughter-in-law.

The Irish have a saying: “A son is a son ’til he takes a wife; but a daughter’s a daughter all of your life.”

I don’t look upon this occasion as the loss of a son, but rather as the gain of a beautiful daughter.

A line from one of the songs we sang this morning caught my eye: “Catch me up in your story. Catch me up in your story.”

We are gathered here in this place on this day to celebrate Joshua and Kerra, the beginning of their new life together. Some of you have come from close by; others have come from far away. There are those from New England and those from Taiwan; those from Connecticut and those from Georgia; those from Hartford and those from Dallas. As individuals you hail from far and wide; but as a group you have assembled here, if only for a short while, to show your love and support for Joshua and Kerra.

Some of you I have met before; some of you I wouldn’t recognize if I passed you in the street. Some of you I know intimately well; others, hardly at all. Yet one thing I can say with confidence about each and every one of you: that you bring your unique life story to this place.

Each of us is part of an extended family of some sort, and each family has its own set of stories to tell. As for me, I could tell you some pretty good ones. I’m certain that you know some pretty good ones, too.

Stories are the glue that binds folks together in relationship. Some stories are funny, some are sad; some are uplifting, and others are tragic. Stories are the narratives that give structure to our lives. Without stories our existence would become a mere calendar of daily appointments and activities. It is through our stories that we come to know one another; it is through stories that we invite one another into our personal lives, to become a part of them.

Today I was thinking of a family photograph, one in which Josh and Ian are little boys, sitting on the porch of their grandparents’ house. Josh is sitting in Ian’s lap; Ian’s arms encircle his brother’s waist. Their hair sparkles in the sun, their eyes twinkle and there are big smiles on their faces.

What you don’t see in the photo are other sets of arms, the ones holding both of them, the arms of their mother and me, the arms of their Grandma and Grandpa — arms which encircle and hold, arms that shelter and protect, arms that offer comfort and security. Those are the arms which they depended upon for support when they were growing up.

And now for Josh and Kerra there will be new sets of arms, arms to have and to hold, arms to shelter and protect, arms to offer comfort and security. Two in relationship are better than one; for if they fall, the one will lift the other up.

Most of us will not remember what was said here this day, but all of us will recall this day, the day when Joshua and Kerra invited us, their dear friends and families, to gather together to celebrate this new beginning of their story. Through the vows they have taken they have invited each to be caught up in the story of the other; and we who have been caught up in their story will always be a part of it, and a part of them.

On contemplating the death of a high school teacher

Mostly I remember the thermos and the pipe.

He kept both in the storage room behind the massive black slate counter that sat at the front of the chemistry classroom. A big man with reddish-brown hair that hinted a Scotch-Irish ancestry, he towered behind that counter when he taught, frequently using the overhead projector to illustrate chemical formulae — compositions of molecules and thermodynamic equations. During breaks or between classes, he would step into the storage room for a cup of warm coffee from the thermos or a draw on his briar pipe.

His father had been a chemist before him and worked for one of the industrial giants. He hinted that at one time his dad had made a number of discoveries in the company laboratories, discoveries which remained with the firm and for which he received little recognition — monetary or otherwise. This was a source of great consternation for him.

He had done a stint in the army early in life, as was the case with many young men of that era, and served in Korea. After discharge, he remained in the reserve, serving with a unit at Fort Indiantown Gap. The additional income came in handy for a family of six, and at some point in one of our conversations he confided in me that staying on in the military helped to keep him young.

He and his young wife bought a big old home near the center of Linglestown, which I visited on occasion when I was home on leave from the service. As I recall, the big white house had an expansive back yard with a small orchard of sorts. We spent an evening in conversation over a bottle of Chivas Regal which I had brought as a gift. The bottle didn’t last the night. I ended up sleeping over on the couch, none the worse for a time of extended discussion.

One evening while I was still in high school we attended some sort of educational dinner sponsored by industry. He drove us to the function in his old car, which he used to joke could run on kerosene. I don’t remember much of the evening, only the pleasure of the company of older and I assumed wiser men.

When I told him I wanted to study biology, he retorted that I should press on for a career in medicine. “Why would you want to know about a bug crawling around on the ground, when you can study the complexities of the human body?” he argued. Now here I am in my 35th year of medical practice, contemplating retirement.

Later he would write a letter of recommendation for me to attend a small undergraduate school known for its forte in the sciences. “I had to tone it down a bit,” he said. “The first draft made you look too much like a saint.”

During one of our after-school conversations, he pointed out several good-looking girls in my class. He counseled me that a young man should not be too quick to commit to any one young lady in particular. Playing the field was a wiser approach. Indeed, that is how one amassed what in those days was known as a little black book.

We spoke about literary subjects. He told me about Hemingway’s success as a young man. “‘The Sun Also Rises’ was a good first novel, but it was ‘A Farewell to Arms’ that cemented Hemingway’s place in the American literary canon,” he said.

Secretly, he wished to become a writer. He shared several ideas for books of his own. Some were science-fiction based — one about a cleaning woman who fell into a nocturnal time warp and was whisked away to another world to become a primordial Eve. Another drew upon his boyhood experiences, events that occurred in a wooded lot in the neighborhood where he grew up.

“I never had a whole lot of direction in life,” he told me. “In the end I had to figure things out on my own.”

Perhaps that is the way it was for most of us.

2014©Brian T. Maurer

2014©Brian T. Maurer

Sacraments

Among other things, when my wife returned from Europe she brought along an ancient aluminum percolator, the kind you heat over a burner on the stove top. The unit makes one cup of coffee or, if you are having company over and prefer, two demitasses. Etched into the side of the urn is the word “Bialetti” — the name of the Italian maker — and the trademark, Dama.

Although coffee in our house is traditionally made in a 12-cup coffee maker by the first person up in the morning, since her return my wife has developed a preference for the small European unit. Even if there is hot coffee available when she descends the stairs to the kitchen, my wife will invariably make her own personal cup in the Bialetti Dama.

It’s not that my wife is particular about her coffee, or that she’s the type who needs to exert her individuality; but merely that the Bialetti urn was given to her by her mother, who is now 82 years old and aging rapidly like the rest of us. My mother-in-law had used the Dama most of her adult life to brew her coffee, and now my wife is following in her mother’s footsteps.

Although she hasn’t said so, I’m certain that when my wife pours her cup of morning coffee from the Bialetti urn, as she watches the dark caramel colored liquid swirl into the thin rimmed cup, she almost surely thinks of her mother as she had performed the same rite of passage every morning, day in day out, for decades.

In giving the urn as a gift, my mother-in-law offered her daughter a widow’s mite; for she has been a poor woman her entire life — poor, that is, in a material sense.

As I disassembled the Dama and washed the individual components at the sink this morning, I reflected that the Bialetti urn was in reality a sacrament of sorts — the outward and visible sign of my suegra‘s inward and spiritual grace.

“Bialetti Dama” 2012©Brian T. Maurer

“Notes from a Healer” — Those We Carry With Us

Some of us need more time to grow up than others. Some of us never seem to make that transition. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a Healer — Those We Carry With Us — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

After work

It was not a particularly stressful Saturday morning to work in the office. Only three prescheduled physical examinations and a handful of sick children came in by morning’s end.

One child, a 1-month-old, my first patient of the morning, had colic. His mother reported that he wanted to feed constantly; whenever she didn’t give him a bottle he fretted, sucking on his fingers and hands. I had evaluated him one week ago for similar complaints. Since then the child gained 1-1/4 pounds, nearly three times the expected weekly weight gain. Obviously, she was overfeeding him. I suspected that part of the reason might have been because her first child was born prematurely and had a difficult time gaining weight.

Mothers nurture through feeding; a thriving baby exemplifies good maternal care, but sometimes too much of a good thing is not best.

As the morning wound down I ruminated behind my desk and reviewed the remainder of outstanding laboratory reports, signed off on a stack of physical examination forms and phoned in prescription renewals. The medical assistants finished with the filing and departed, locking the front door behind them.

I snugged the bow tie at the base of my throat, picked up my blue blazer and stepped out the side door. It was a short drive to the funeral home. By the time I arrived the lot was nearly filled with vehicles.

Inside people milled about, speaking in low tones, touching one another briefly on the arm or shoulder, exchanging whispered words. Some paused before the large displays of photographs mounted on easels in the hallway.

I stepped into the parlor, signed the guest book and found the end of the receiving line. There were stands of flowers everywhere, roses mostly — pink and red and white — done up in intricate arrangements identified by cards signed by family, friends and well-wishers.

A small silver urn stood in the center of the table; a golden crucifix rested against it. On either side lay two stacks of books — three on the left, two on the right. I noted the author of the two on the right — medical titles reflecting her area of expertise.

Most physicians don’t leave any written creative works behind; she had left two — these two texts, in addition to her two teenaged sons, who stood in the receiving line on either side of their father. Each of the three wore a pink tie. Pink, the color of the ribbon supporting breast cancer research; pink, the color of the delicate rose in full bloom; pink, the color of fading rose petals at the close of day.

My words were inadequate — “I’m sorry for your loss” — followed by handshakes and brief smiles.

“How are things at the office?” the father asked.

“Busy,” I said. “Back to school physical exams, you know. It’s the same every fall.”

He nodded. “Thanks for stopping by.”

I left by the side door and stepped out into the heat of the early afternoon sun.

As practicing clinicians we are granted the high privilege of glimpsing the struggles of families entrusted to our care. For brief periods were share in their triumphs, their joys and ultimately, their grief.

But many times it’s the grief that seems to linger the longest.

2012 © Brian T. Maurer

“Notes from a Healer” — Think Pink

Some hurts never leave us. Willingly, we choke down our daily pill; and the bitterness lingers. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerThink Pink — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.