“Memento mori”

By Michael Singer

Upon their return from foreign conquest, Rome’s generals were clad in ancient Imperial regalia and paraded by chariot before cheering throngs towards Jupiter’s temple, led in a procession by the Senate, soldiers, and the spoils they would pledge to the gods. The chariot’s only other passenger was one of Rome’s public slaves, tasked with reminding the general a fact anyone who’s worked in a hospital knows: “Remember, someday you will die.” I have not always been morbid. Rather, a curious resignation took hold the day I watched a friend struck by a careless motorist outside our grade school gasp his last. Daily staring contests with voids and a botched felo de se later, it seemed fitting that my first attempt at life as an adult should be studying death.

 

“Mr. S—, are you interested in helping me with a project?” These were the first words spoken to me by Dr. V., as I passed him outside the operating room one morning in September on my rounds collecting surgical specimens. Gray-bearded, bespectacled, attired in a long three-button sport coat to accommodate his lanky frame with a matching paisley tie, he exuded a solemnity and continental élan that stood in stark contrast to his playful demeanor. He introduced himself as V. and asked me to stop by his office that afternoon. After he left, one of the nurses whispered to me: “That’s the chief of surgery.”

 

I was dubious, I had heard several rumors: Dr. V. had a bad temper yet charmed all. He operated only once or twice weekly and could (some would sneer “should”) have retired a decade prior. Dr. V. had a 17 year-old daughter and an ex-wife half his age. He was invited to more baptisms, weddings, and funerals than the mayor of New York and made soup, to bring to his staff. Dr. V earned the begrudging trust or enmity of patients seeking his consultation, informing many that they did not require surgery but were simply “fat."

 

Later, Dr. V interrogated me with an alacrity belying his years across a mahogany desk settled obliquely in a generously apportioned office made claustrophobic by mounds of paper littering the desk and floor. Used surgical gowns overflowed from a file cabinet arrayed on one side by putters, irons, and drivers. The wall behind him seemed more award than oak panel. To my right, a self-portrait of a younger Dr. V. before a mirror painted with feathered strokes hung above a larger canvas depicting blurred, pink-clad ballerinas on point reaching for some shadow beyond the frame, both signed with the same exaggerated cursive he used to approve study applications. Opposite, a reproduction of Gogh’s Place du Forum occupied a prominent place above a bookshelf housing surgical tomes and his files. He grunted his assent to my replies between generous bites at his sandwich, and once satisfied brushed the remnants off his bloodstained scrubs and grinned knowingly: "You'll do, Mr. S."

 

In the year that followed, I would not merely assist Dr. V. sate professional curiosity fed by 50 years of robust practice and international aid work, but also an unwitting student to that quality which makes a man immortal; how our art touches others. He had endured Vietcong mortar fire as an army surgeon at the U.S. Garrison at Khe Sanh charged with the Sisyphean task of saving wounded servicemen who wouldn’t survive medivac flights. Now, he made beautiful and whole patients distorted by the ravages of terminal illness or deformity. Gradually, he taught me not merely the science of defying death, but the art of breathing life into my world.

One February morning while he was sailing in the Caribbean, a wail rose up from his secretary’s desk. “Dr. V.’s dead” swept through the corridors. He had insisted on his vitality, but the shape of his fingernails indicated the result of his autopsy before the report cleared: a stroke. His funeral was so well attended that mourners poured out past the cathedral doors onto the ice and russet leaf-litter outside. Dr. V. had been teaching me how to live, and now the student’s last lesson was to learn what has been known before Rome, before history; We die, but we were only ever the lives we touched while we lived.