By: Charles Garfield
Years ago, at the Cancer Research Institute, I cared for a retired high school teacher who loved to tell me about the students he was proudest of, kids who made something of their lives and attributed some or much of their success to the lessons they learned in his English literature class. He had saved their letters, in which they described their successes, and they let him know that he had been there at “just the right time” to guide them.
Their stories were part of his story, and he talked proudly about how much he’d loved these kids and tried to bring literature to life for them. He’d made it a point to recommend short stories, plays, and novels that had messages that would illuminate the issues in their lives, and he kept in touch with them after graduation, meeting with them to discuss their transitions and challenges.
To the end, he was the amiable professor—it was the identity that defined him and made him most proud. I remember our bedside “seminars,” in which he’d slide into his expansive knowledge of human nature and literature and hold court. When I mentioned that I was struggling in my first marriage, he recommended that I read Tristan and Isolde and sent me to look again at Romeo and Juliet. That, he said, was the best way to think about love.
Our exchanges were warm but never very emotional. Yet, they glimmer in my memory when I think of him and bring him vividly to life. For dying people, that’s one of the greatest hopes—that they’ll endure inside us. The promise we can make is that we’ll put our hearts into listening to the stories of who they were and remember them.