Maurice was a tall, strong man with an impressive moustache. In contrast, he was notably mild-mannered and spoke in a soft undertone. Doctors get into the habit of talking to their patients in a commanding voice. But everything Maurice said sounded like a modest suggestion. I instantly liked the guy.
When I mentioned my stint in Haiti, he was curious. We had a long talk. After that, any time we met our conversation veered soon from medical issues. We talked about our lives, our likes and distastes, our precarious hopes. We became friends.
The last time I saw him, after only a few months, he looked quite different. He seemed an old, tired man, a shadow of the person I knew earlier. He said I was the last patient he was seeing, specially so that he could say goodbye.
Eight weeks later I received a card telling me of his memorial service in the local Catholic church. It was a large church, but it was overflowing with people. Clearly Maurice had a lot of friends and patients. And they cared enough to come to the service. I sat in the last pew and thought of the gentle person I will not see again.
When I came face to face with his wife at the end of the service, I had a hard time finding words. What could I say to express my sense of loss? What could anyone say to a woman who had just lost her husband? I managed to murmur that I would miss Maurice. Then I stepped back.
When I came out of the church, it was late afternoon. The church’s grounds were well kept, and green lawns looked plush and pretty. It was really a lovely afternoon, and everything seemed right with the world. Everything, except that Maurice was no longer there. He will never again be seen and heard. The dismal thought occurred to me that in a few days, at most in a few months, most people would have forgotten about Maurice. He would only linger in the thoughts of a select few.
Yet the many who came to his service signaled that his life had meant something to them. A doctor offers his service in exchange for a fee. Surely that is not all that Maurice had meant to the hundreds I saw. He had meant something special to me and surely to some others. People had left their chores and driven from all parts of the city to come and honor his memory. It was their homage to the man.
What more could one do for a person who was no longer with us? I pondered as I drove home in the gathering dusk.
When friends and relatives die, I am always short of words. I don’t find words that seem to equal the occasion. It seems gauche to speak of the loss and deepen the wound of those who are already grieving. But it also seems a graceless oversight not to speak of the person whom we are all mourning. In this dilemma, do I wax eloquent or remain just quiet? Seldom do I know the answer.
We are all busy and we all have pressing concerns. So little time to quarantine a part of our day to mull over a departed doctor or fallen friend. Our memories sink like a coin in the bottomless well of busy and busier days. If a fond recollection surfaces in a fleeting moment when our head strikes a pillow at a late hour, its longevity cannot long outpace our fatigue. It seems cruel to say so, but affection can seldom outlast the daily battle of living well or going ahead. Loyalty to the dead fights a losing skirmish with the demands of the living.
Yet I find the past sustains us. My friend Joanna says, “The best things about the past is that nobody can take it away from you.” Quite right. Nobody can obliterate how you were lionized when you scored the winning goal in a soccer match against a competing school. Nor can anybody dim the shine on the silver medal you got for the best entry in an essay competition. Or of the luminous smile of your six-year-old when you placed the big red toy truck next to the birthday cake. Or the friends who brightened your days. Those are the recalls that give you the joy of living.
And I will recall Maurice, his soft voice, smooth manners, gentle counsel and warm company. There will be a void, but a void redolent of loving thoughts.