Dear Class of 2020:
I'd like to introduce you to one of your new teachers.
Jerry was born there in Buffalo in 1934. He moved to the snow belt with his family, graduated high school and married my mom at 19. He worked his whole life at the Ford Stamping Plant, had three kids, and died of Parkinson's Disease and COPD last summer at the age of 80. An ordinary life, but....
When we were kids, he and my mom packed us up in an old station wagon and went camping all the way accross the U.S. TWICE. We saw mountainous sand dunes in Indiana, glaciers in Montana, boiling mud in Wyoming, and trees so huge they beggar imagination in California. We stood on four states at one time. We stood in a massive cavern in New Mexico when they turned out the lights and let us see what it was like to be truly blind. We went white-water rafting in impossibly challenging waters.
He built a two-story cabin in the woods, by himself with his own two hands. He taught me to handle a gun, same as my brothers. He hiked two generations of Boy Scouts up Mount Marcy. He had bright blue Paul Newman eyes. He was an extraordinary man.
When I was 20 I became my family's first college graduate, with an associates degree. A year later, a Bachelor's. After three years of cancer research at Roswell Park I called my Dad to have my weekly 'tea-by-phone' conversation with him. "I'm thinking about going to medical school, Dad." It was a low-key conversation, discussing pros and cons, expenses and logic and career paths without pressure or judgement. He was kind and supportive. "Either way, honey." Ten minutes after we finished talking, his sister from California called in a state of total excitement and exclaimed, "I hear you're going to be a DOCTOR!!" He was THAT proud.
When I graduated from NYCOM in 1987, he was there. The day before the ceremony we went to campus to look around, and he specifically wanted to see the anatomy lab. It was a brand-new building, barely finished in time for us to use it. I told him about our first day; how we were all nervous and trying to not show it. About the moment of silence honoring the people before us who had volunteered to be there to be our teachers, and the somewhat useless reminder for us to be respectful and reverent. We then met our cadaver.
There were four of us on the team, and it took all our strength to raise her to table height. She was short, she was round, and she was HEFTY. We named her Addy, because she was very Adipose. I told my dad about that first disection: To get to the chest wall, one must remove the breasts. Some of the construction workers who had just finished the building had asked to observe, so when our forceps proved less than adequate for the amount of tissue involved and we lost our grip (slapping a large, wet breast back down onto the exposed chest wall with a room-stilling THWACK!), one of them offered us a pair of pliers from his tool belt. That was the end of any solemnity we had left in us. We laughed hysterically, completely DONE with nerves, finished the dissection like pros and ordered Chinese from the lab with the scent of formadehyde still strong on our hands.
My father found this story hilarious. My mom found it nauseating. Dad asked to see a cadaver. Mom fled.
As we examined a fully-dissected body, Dad and I talked at length about how the cadavers had taught us much that we would never have learned in mere books. And despite the appearance of disrespect, when I spoke of how emotionally challenging it was for me to perform Addy's facial dissection, he understood that there was, and remains, a deeper connection to humanity both because of and despite what many would see as a very dehumanizing process.
I suppose I wasn't too surprised, then, when I discovered that Dad had sent himself to medical school upon his death. His lack of education never reflected low intelligence but rather lack of opportunity, and he took his opportunities where he could find them.
And here is my message to you: I want you to know that Jerry knows you are going to laugh at the things you find as you dissect him, and both of us are okay with that. His pacemaker IS on the wrong side (he's a left-handed redneck - putting it on the correct side would have interfered with his shootin' arm). Lord knows, he has a million scars and they each have a story (the chain-saw wound on his thigh, the toe amputation due a run-in with the lawn mower, the extra belly-button-like mark from a power drill? Feel free to make up a story. I guarantee the real tale is funnier). But I love that battle-scarred old guy, and I miss him, and I want you to remember he is there because even after a life well lived, he still had it in him to want to teach YOU.