Friday, November 18, 2016

An Anniversary

Earlier  today and last evening were a bit unsettling.  Today,  18 November, marks the third anniversary since George Murray, SJ, MD died sometime around 6:00 AM.  I was particularly aware of the anniversary last night while attending a special Mass at the nearby Cathedral of St. Nicholas here in Ljubljana.  Something became apparent in the fifteen minutes in the dim cathedral before Mass began.  That something was that there is no reason to say the prayers for the dead or to plead that his soul find eternal rest.  All that was taken care of at the moment of his death.  Rather, today is an anniversary on which to sing the Te Deum, the Church's great prayer of thanksgiving and praise.  It is time for the Te Deum not because George is dead but in thanksgiving for his presence and ongoing influence in the lives of many. 

I learned of George's death moments after his body was discovered in his chair.  He'd probably been dead for about an hour.  Unfortunately I was racing to the room of another Jesuit who I was to take to Tufts for a complicated biopsy within the next twenty minutes.  It was going to be a very long day there.  As I was hurrying down the hall, preoccupied with finding coffee and hoping that the traffic wasn't going to be too awful (at 6:30 AM), one of the nursing assistants came out of George's room to tell the nurse that Fr. Murray was dead.  I think I was 10 feet past his room.  I went in, confirmed it for myself, blessed him, and made two quick phone calls before heading off to Tufts. 

George's death was not a surprise.  It was sudden but not unexpected. The previous day, Sunday, he and I spent six or seven hours in the Newton-Wellesley ER where he was sent after complaining of some vague chest discomfort.   His enzymes had not risen, there was no evidence of cardiac damage and he could return to Campion.  That was great news.  He hated being in hospital and he really hated  Newton-Wellesley, a place he spent way too much time in the preceding months.  MGH was more tolerable if he had to be in hospital. After we returned and he got settled in his room I went over to mine and got ready for what was going to be a long long day at Tufts   As it turns out I never saw him alive again.

Just before leaving for the city I made two phone calls, one to Cornelia asking her to let the appropriate people at MGH know of his death and one to Manny, a former fellow who was (still is) at Tufts to let him know and ask if I could spend some time in his office once the Jesuit went into the OR.  I did not want to sit in the family waiting room.

I knew I was going to celebrate the funeral Mass and preach the homily as George had asked me to do that when it was apparent that Ned could not.  There were phone calls to make, plans to change, and people I needed to let know including my family who loved him dearly.  During the late afternoon I joined the consult psychiatry sit-down rounds at Tufts.  Manny was struggling to stay composed as he spoke to the students and residents about George's death and what George meant to him.  And then he did something brilliant.  He polled everyone in the room one by one.  The questions were, "What teacher has had the greatest influence on your life?"  "What has that influence been?"  It could be a teacher from any point in one's educational life, a particularly long life for physicians.  The results were fascinating.  There were two other questions, "Is the teacher still alive?"  and if the answer was yes, "Have you thanked him or her?"  If the speaker had not thanked the teacher Manny, who can be intimidating, gave a two word command: Do it. 

There is no greater gift to a teacher than gratitude, particularly after one has left school and realized how that teacher contributed to one's having "made it."  When my turn came  I noted that Manny had already said a lot that I would say about George so I wanted to single out another teacher who, in some ways put me in the position to have met George as one of his fellows.

Mrs. Miltona Klinetob taught eight grade English at Plymouth Junior High School.  She was stern, no nonsense, and good.  One day she gave us a multiple choice exam.  We used the typical cheap paper of the time on which it was impossible to hide an erasure.  The following day was not a good one in her class.  She was angry.  Very angry.  When she looked at the exams there were multiple erasures, changes of answers and so on.  With one or two exceptions, everyone had done poorly.  I was an everyone.   I will never forget she told us that if you are prepared for a multiple choice exam your first choice is probably correct.  Do not change answers unless you have a good reason to do so.  That made sense.  It became my mantra whenever holding a Number 2 pencil.  I'd navigated many exams, SATs and MCATs using her advice to prevent disastrous mistakes.  Don't change an answer unless you know why you are doing so.  This event was in 1962.

During the 1971 Christmas break freshman year at Temple Med  I ran into Mrs. Klinetob, now retired, in Wilkes-Barre.  We chatted for a few moments and I told her my memory of her multiple choice test, her anger, and her instruction to the class.  I assured her I thought of her with gratitude every time I took a multiple choice test.  "Look where your advice got me."  Her lower lip quivered a bit.  I took my leave and never saw her again.  It is comforting to know that I was able to thank her for what seemed to be simple advice, but advice that has taken me through more multiple choice exams than I can remember.

So it is and was for many of George's former fellows.  We frequently thanked him at odd times for a bit of teaching, for imparting an attitude, for forcing us to recognize abilities we didn't know we had, and for teaching us how to deal with the occasionally nasty world of hospital and departmental politics along with so much consultation psychiatry and life wisdom that I don't have sufficient disk space to write about it.  Were he to have charged tuition for his fellowship it would have been worth low six-figures. 

I thought of going out for a beer in commemoration of him.  Over the past two years I've had a Rob Roy, his favorite drink,  on this anniversary but I have no idea how to describe a Scotch Manhattan in Slovenian.  And the weather in Ljubljana this evening is miserably rainy with periodic downpours.  Perhaps there is a beer in the refrigerator.  Will look after posting.  But, no matter what, at some point I will go into the chapel to say the Te Deum for the great gift that George Murray was to an enormous number of people and for his teaching that will continue to influence physicians and patients for a few generations at least.

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