Love, Loss and All That Remains

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything—if you do you start missing everybody.”  Holden Caulfield

From The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger

I don’t know whether it’s fitting, or selfish that on this anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks I was remembering my friend Catherine Doyle, who died last December 18.  I had gone into the local branch of Wells Fargo, to finally close out a couple of accounts we held jointly—as Catherine said, “In case you have to pay for my funeral.”  I don’t know why it took me so long—after the cremation, and the payment of the legal fees of the estate, there were only a few dollars left and it seemed like a lot of bother until the service fees started coming in.  As it turned out, I owed the bank $6.95.  Perhaps I expected that with time, I would not mind the finality of it.  Instead I found myself telling the bank teller the story of Catherine’s life, and much to her dismay, crying while I did it.  Some things just don’t get easier, and presenting a death certificate is one of them.

The annual Western Regional Scottish Deerhound Specialty was dedicated to Catherine this past July.  She had been a longstanding member of both the National and Regional deerhound clubs and it was important that we honor her service to the breed.  I gave a eulogy, and others spoke as well, and our comments are too lengthy and at this point, too foggy to reproduce here. But there is one thing that lingers in my head, and so, with apologies to those of you who were there, I will repeat myself here.

After Catherine died, her jeweler Barbara called me and said, “I have something of Catherine’s that you will want.”  She mailed me a plain gold wedding band, worn thin from use, that she thought had belonged to Catherine’s mother.  As it turned out, that was not the case.  Inside the old band was inscribed “F. J. Malone to Clara, 1917.” As I turned over the ring and read the inscription, it seemed as if I was suddenly flooded with images and snippets of conversation from the past, across two continents and two World Wars:  Franklin J. Malone, a young Irish soldier presenting this ring to his betrothed, Clara, in a hurried ceremony just before departing for the Continent to fight and perish in the trenches of World War I.  Clara Malone, pregnant with her only child Alice, poor, bereft and with no means of support, booking steerage to come to America to find work as a seamstress and a better life.  Alice Malone, growing up fatherless, marrying a military man, Pierce Doyle, whose blue eyes and strong jawline reminded her of the only photograph she had of her father.  Alice, alone and in labor at a military hospital stateside, giving birth to Catherine while her husband served his country until the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought him home to his wife and only child.  Alice, Pierce and Catherine moving to New Mexico so that Pierce, now a high ranking Army officer, could oversee the nuclear test sites in the southern part of the state.  Catherine, smart, multilingual and witty going off to Barnard before a taxi cab hit her on the streets of New York, shattering her legs, and her dreams.  Catherine, coming home to New Mexico to live out her life in a place they had all grown to love.  And finally, Catherine in a photograph, imposing in her cape and tartans, holding a leash of deerhounds against a mountainous landscape of endless sky.

Sometimes, an act of war or terror changes the entire history of an individual, or a family, as it did for my friend Catherine’s grandmother Clara, and for the survivors of 9/11, and Iraq, and Afghanistan. I have nothing but the deepest respect for those who fought, those who rescued, and those who were left behind.  Someday, I hope that I hold that gold ring, and the fleeting images and fragmented conversations take the shape and form of a real story played out over the last hundred years.  And then, I will write that novel.

The Wisdom of Youth

In the spring of our freshman year at Yale, my roommates and I were shocked to open the Sunday New York Times, so fashionable at brunch in the dining halls, and see an article written by one of our very own classmates in the Times Magazine.  Called “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,”(http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/13/specials/maynard-mag.html)  the autobiographical essay captured the angst of those of us growing up in the 1960’s, and made the author Joyce Maynard famous.  So famous in fact that she caught the attention of reclusive author J.D. Salinger who began a series of correspondences with her that culminated in her leaving Yale to go and live with him, when she was nineteen and he was fifty three.  Every so often, a kid surprises you.

And so was I surprised a week or so ago when a good friend of mine from medical school sent me his son’s speech delivered as high school valedictorian of his graduating class.  I wasn’t prepared to be impressed.  After all, I had just heard commencement speeches delivered at my daughter’s graduation ranging from her class president glibly and with great flair comparing a medical career to a marriage, to Harold Varmus, the Nobel Laureate and current Director of the National Cancer Institute speaking about the role of the physician in shaping society and public policy.  Isn’t every parent proud of their child who graduates first in his class in high school?  I certainly would have been, had any of mine had that honor.

Since my friend’s son’s speech has not made it into the New York Times, at least, not yet, I asked permission to share it here.  I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.  Here it is:

“I had some trouble finding something valuable to say. I fished around, and ultimately, I gave up. I decided instead that it might be easier to babble about the sort of stuff I usually babble about, thinking that would be easier. Two people, 500 people…

Something I think about quite frequently is this concept of a zero sum game. It’s a game in which each player has either a positive or negative number of points, and all the players’ points sum to zero. So, for everyone that wins, everyone who succeeds, someone else has to suffer. There are a lot of these games going on today. Locally, nationally, and globally.

It used to be that everyone was playing these games. 1 human survives, 1 pig-beast becomes food. And of course, over time, these became human sacrifices. We were introduced to the most tragic and relentless of these games, war. One player wins, another loses…

But we find that if we look around, we see a different kind of game. We see games with positive sums, even with increasing sums. Not only does everyone benefit, but the benefit increases over time. Of course, I want to talk about technology. I want to talk about Quinine and Smallpox vaccine and Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Remarkably ingenuitive solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

But I would be lying if I told you that art, and literature, and history, and every other form of creative/analytical human endeavor weren’t included too. They are. They produce information, interpretation, and commentary which is crucial to our collective mental health (it’s no coincidence that great social revolutions are invariably coupled with revolutions in these fields).

As it turns out, the actual field is not particularly important. What is important is what this work represents. It is evidence of a collective endeavor to create, to project the imaginations, designs, interpretations, and realities that exist in our minds onto the world around us. We are all inconceivably powerful creatures, although we might not believe it.

The point is this. We can look at a zero sum game and ask why, and inevitably someone is going so sit us down and tell us that that’s just the way it is: the way it has to be. What we don’t realize is that we have the power, the enormous cosmic influence, to say no. We all make the rules. We are not bound into bad games because we can create alternatives, we can refactor, reconfigure, regenerate.

I’m not a good person to take advice from. Those who know me have discovered this… empirically…What I will say to you guys is that you must bear all this in mind. If you find a bad game, make a better one, whatever field you find yourself in.

You don’t have to worry about being successful (capital S), wealthy, famous, and so on. The only thing you have to do is to open your mind to the mutability of your reality, and start hacking. Let love be your guide and your mind, your hand.”