Children should not die before their parents. Parents should not die before their grandparents. And husbands should die long before their wives. This is not complicated, right? There is an order to the universe. This domino has to fall before that one falls and the next one and the next one. “To everything there is a season . . . .” Get with the program. It’s either your turn to die or it’s not. Rules are rules.
And, by the way, doctors should not die before their patients. Ever.
But Doctor Charles R. Caughlan did die the other day. Most of you didn’t know him. He was a thoughtful man, who listened well to complaints, and had a deep competence. A rare thing, that. Doctor Caughlan’s job at his office on Mills Civic Parkway was the stuff of life and death. With his stethoscope placed gently at your back, he would listen to the workings of your body, looking for anything amiss, anything not behaving as it should, anything that might foretell the end. There was no room in this doctor-patient relationship for his own ending, his own death. But die he did on the first day of July, when children’s laughter echoed in neighborhood parks and the orange day lilies blossomed in Iowa yards. He was 66 years old.
Don’t worry, I get it. A relationship with a doctor is always intimate. Doctors look at every wrinkle and spot and discomfort that you hide from even yourself. Especially from yourself. They will tap your knee, listen to your insides, have you cough and move around, and then discreetly probe even further. Yup, count on it. Samples will be taken, and blood drawn, and scrapings taken here and there for even further examinations long after you’ve left the office and are waiting in some drive-thru for your large order of fries. It’s exhausting work to keep you alive. And some guy or gal has agreed to the challenge. But Dr. Caughlan was unique even among these special folks.
“Call me Charlie.”
The fit man, with meticulously combed grey hair, a back that was ramrod straight, looked at me with a professional appraisal. Not exactly a father figure, but a man of authority, a man to rely upon in a tight spot.
“Call me Charlie.”
“Well, Charlie, I don’t feel so hot.”
And Charlie would figure it out. Tie pulled tight against his neck. Two pens properly aligned in his white doctor’s coat. He would go to work on your body. Sickness would be banished. Aches and pains diminished. Tests and probes would conquer ill-founded fears.
“You’ll never die of a heart attack.”
“Brain tumors are not contagious.”
Are you sure?
“Pain is not acceptable as a way of life.”
My oh my.
No matter the problem, no matter the issue, Charlie diagnosed, treated, and solved the puzzle. A miracle man.
Several eulogies were given at Charlie’s funeral. Beautiful eulogies. Come to find out that Charlie was a man of humor and joy, who loved his family, his children and grandchildren and above all his wife, and took care of his friends. He talked with others about religion and grace and golf and accepted all that they were, just as they were. I loved that he sometimes had a wicked temper on the golf course and he had a real joy in cooking. Who knew?
“You should retire,” Charlie said to me one day with a serious tone.
What?????? I’m too young. I have a career. I have work to do.
“You should retire,” he repeated doggedly.
Why, Charlie, why, after all these years, are you giving me this unsolicited advice?
“You have a stressful job. You had a bad accident that surely didn’t lengthen your life. It is a good time to retire.”
I sat dumbstruck. But it was Charlie, so I listened.
And retire I did.
Then Charlie died.
What is going on here? My expectation was that he would usher me into my own death. Didn’t I make that clear from the get-go?
More than several years ago, I lay in a hospital bed, paralyzed, breathing out of a hole in my throat, unable to talk. Charlie picked up my file. Looked it over slowly. Straightening up he gave me a small smile, tight and serious above the mouth.
“You’ll make a full recovery,” he said to my silent shock.
“He’ll make a full recovery,” he assured my ever-present wife.
“You’ll live forever,” he summed up to both of us with conviction.
And Charlie went off to take care of his other patients. Making the rounds. Reassuring us all. And we all breathed easier at his light step and steady hand.
Listen, none of us believed that we would live forever. Of course not. And none of us believed that we would make a full recovery. Nobody makes a full recovery. Rather, we all expected that Charlie would be there to reassure us through the next catastrophe. And the next. And the next.
I have no reassurances to give those touched by Charlie. It’s not fair. Life is out of sync. Your doctor should not die before you. Charlie was a good man who should be here today. But I will take to my own grave the picture of him casually leaning against the examining table, his small smile as he looked at me, scared and unsure, and his gentle reassurance that all would be right. And it was.
May he rest in peace.