A dying man gave me a book once. I didn’t know he was dying and he didn’t know he was giving me so much more than just a book.
That man was a former college professor and he passed away from prostate cancer before I got the chance to thank him.
When I took this professor’s journalism class I didn’t expect to form a friendship with the man behind the podium. One day after class I went to speak with him in his office about why I had missed a few of his classes. He was open, genuine, understanding, and kind. Empathy radiated from his eyes.
He asked about my course of study, which was creative writing, and this led to the discussion of poetry.
He said he had been writing poetry his entire life but he never shared it with anyone.
I told him that was a shame.
Without a word, he got up from his desk, and went to retrieve some poems he kept hidden in his office. With a shy shrug of the shoulders he handed them to me.
Most of the poetry was centered around the love of his life, a woman he had loved and lost a few decades ago. He confided in me that he was trying to find her now that he was older and divorced. And that’s when he explained he was slowly dying from prostate cancer.
According to a study done by University of Southern California’s Myles Cockburn, “There are few established risk factors for prostate cancer, and the search for plausible environmental causes is under way”.
The five year survival rates for men with my professor’s stage of cancer is roughly twenty-eight percent. He was in the there’s nothing left we can do so let’s try experimental studies stage.
To say that I admired this gentle soul is putting it mildly. His insistence on working while very ill was commendable by itself. The fact that he took the time to show me empathy when I was struggling and to share with me was amazing.
He was someone in deep pain reaching out to comfort and bring smiles to those he met. And, luckily for me, I was one of the recipients.
I regularly visited his office after my class with him ended. Seeing him always brightened my day. It was like visiting with a favorite Grandparent. I would ask about his search for his lost love and how he was feeling and he would ask me about my plans after my upcoming graduation. No matter what was going on with his health he always asked how I was doing.
After graduation I moved to another state to attend graduate school. We emailed back and forth every now and then. He was very vague about his health but I knew it wasn’t good.
The happiest email he ever sent was to tell me he had found her, the long lost love of his life.
She was, of all things, an oncology nurse working with pancreatic cancer patients.
One day, after not hearing from him for a while, I received an email asking for my address. He seemed slightly frantic and said there was something he had to send to me. I sent my information right away. A few days later the book “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” by Gordon Livingston was at my doorstep.
The book was beautiful. But not half as beautiful as the gesture.
I read the book right away and was incredibly moved that this former professor cared enough to express mail me a book that inspired him as he was dying.
I sent him an email thanking him and never received a response.
Time passed and I would send him emails every month or so and still get no reply. I knew in my heart he was gone but liked to think of him as too busy to reply. Off chasing that newly found lost love perhaps.
I never forgot about him or the gift he gave me. I carried that book with me over the years and it survived many moves and personal tragedies where I lost nearly everything.
Not too long ago I thought about him and searched for his name online and came across his obituary.
He had passed away right after he mailed me the book.
Since I never got to see him again or thank him for the gift of kindness and gesture he gave me, this is my thank you. Thank you, dear professor, for caring about a struggling lost college kid. Thank you for teaching me so much more than just a class.
You can find her on Twitter.
Read more on her blog.