Immortality. It’s been a dream of mankind throughout the ages, starting from the first moments when the ephemeral nature of our lives began to penetrate our consciousness. We strive to simulate it by our vain attempts to rejuvenate our exterior appearance with creams, botox, surgery, hair dyes and restoratives. We dress “ younger” and talk “hipper” hoping to confuse the careless observer into believing what we so desperately want to believe ourselves. Some spend hours in gyms and spas trying to maintain or regain the muscle tone of youth, while others throw themselves into almost necessarily brief relationships with a member of the opposite sex approximating the age of their grown children. And how many of us attempt to use our children as a wormhole into a future and time denied to us?
The pharaohs constructed their mighty pyramids, stocked them with tools and utensils, not to mention the understandably reluctant still living wives and servants, to assure their comfort in the afterlife. Religions grew and prospered by promising forever-lasting lives of indescribable bliss to the faithful follower. Men have created empires in the belief they could indelibly stamp their names and those of their offspring into the pages of history.
We have all weathered at least one dark moment of the soul when the existential question of “Is this all there is?” is followed by “Is there any meaning in all this?” I can’t help but love the wit and pathos of the inscription on the tombstone “Somehow, in my case, I always thought they would make an exception.”
As the years lengthen behind me and shorten before me I’m taking time to consider my surroundings, logging them into a portfolio of memory. Documenting what’s in the portfolio and sharing it with those close to me takes on increasing importance. The letter I’ve been writing at Christmas for the past ten years is part of this process. I suppose that is also part of the reason I teach. As I often tell my students, “judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” You want to pass on that hard-won knowledge to your students, to your children, hoping to spare them the cost you paid in its acquisition.
I’ve been teaching GI Fellows and house staff at the medical school since 1977. The graduation ceremony for the Fellows finishing their training is coming up next weekend. As each group goes through the tradition of our little ceremony, I am mindful of the growing disparity between their youth, frozen in that moment of time, and my ever advancing seniority amongst the faculty. Rarely a bond forms between one of the students and myself that transcends their training period, where I receive the only compensation given me for the work I do – their feedback providing the satisfaction of knowing that something I said or did helped someone be a better doctor.
The French Open just concluded, as we watched Nadal, the Spaniard, win a close, hard fought match against his Argentinean opponent. You could see the concentration on his face, the desire for victory, and the elation of the moment when he realized his goal had been reached. You also knew the endless hours of practice and work which went into this moment, as well as the fact that his opponents all made similar sacrifices, knowing the prize would go only to one. After the match, as part of the ceremony, they played the national anthem of Spain. You could see the emotion on his face, and remember the tears, the pride, upon hearing their anthem, in the long stream of champions at sport venues around the globe, as they were all moved beyond the moment of victory, to that sense of bond, of belonging – to a race, a nation, a tradition. They knew that in the hearts and minds of their countrymen, they would be celebrated, remembered, immortalized. I suspect that given a choice of only one reward, none of the champions would trade that moment, that feeling, for the monetary prize they also receive.
We recently celebrated Memorial Day. Perhaps the feelings of the day is the what set me in motion writing this piece. Perhaps it was the memory of the paradox of my unfailingly loving father who was almost as consistently beyond my reach. Perhaps it was hearing the sounds of taps being played – the keening trumpet notes of loneliness and loss creating in the soul the roar which lies on the other side of silence. Perhaps it was the testimonials last week given at the funeral services of friend’s young wife. (One little girl recalled how Jan, our friend’s wife, would stay after school to tutor her in math, until she finally understood – “she never gave up on me!”) Whatever the reason, sharing our stories, our lives, decreases our sense of isolation. It deepens, widens, and expands our sense of life: it feeds our soul.