Bittersweet. That is the word that best summarizes my feelings when I flip through any photo album from the past. The more distant the memories captured by an album, the longer the list of loved ones that are not with me anymore. It is an inevitability, yes. But it is sad nevertheless. Sadder is the fact that there are some elderly members of the family who are still alive...but only just. Owing to a health crisis of some sort, their emasculated body, face and eyes are a pale shadow of a former self. A voice that was able to enunciate words in a manner that was as clear as a crystal in a showcase would now evoke a throat that is impaled by broken glass. A majestic gait would be replaced by shoulders that droop so much that we will start questioning the accuracy of the height scale. But it is the eyes that say nothing but reveal everything. A piercing stare that seemed to burst out of every tissue of the eye now seems like a bottomless pit. The deeper we look, the stronger the pain we experience. Alas, the emptiness in their eyes paradoxically fills our own eye lids with a liquid that was designed to make us feel lighter. But beyond all the physical devastation is the steel of their resolve. The spirit that refuses to bow – drooping shoulders not withstanding- to the health issues that drain them of their vim, vigor and vitality.
My mentor Dr. Jim Jamison was a personification of that positive spirit. In the last ten years of his life, he had two different types of cancer, multiple stem cell transplants and a bypass surgery. No amount of adversity seemed to mount a challenge to the innate grace and poise that he possessed as a human being. The hearty laugh was always round the corner. Earlier, he used to have calculus problems that featured himself as a character. The problems would start off along the lines of, “The bearded fat man was working on an 10-feet ladder when his wife hollered out. As he slipped…” During exams, you see, it was distracting to have such an entertaining story and figure out how to create equations around it! After he underwent chemotherapy and lost all his hair for a while, he quipped, “I suppose I now have to have my problems describe a bald, gaunt man!” Years later, when he was sequestered in a hospital post a transplant, he made it a point to keep himself mentally agile – he started penning a paper! It was the year after he was first diagnosed with cancer that he worked on a book that he co-wrote- “Isometries on Banach Spaces.” I joked with him that I would buy the book only after I understood what the title meant. (Sorry Dr. Jamison, I still haven’t figured it out!)During his last months – he passed on in 2014 – he remained hopeful but was never delusional. He had a nagging feeling that the cancer was going to fell him. But as Randy Pausch eloquently remarked, “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer, we beat the Grim Reaper by living well.” In that respect, Dr. Jamison certainly had the last laugh. I vividly remember my last meeting with him. My family and I had gone to his place to invite him for my father’s 60th birthday celebrations. He was seated in his favorite chair with a blanket over him. Yet as I was leaving, it was he who was emanating warmth with his bear hug. The fingers that had firmly held so many pieces of chalk over four decades could barely hold a pen now. Yet the tenderness of his hug wrote my last memory of him indelibly. He called later to apologize for being unable to attend the function – no, it didn’t come as a surprise. Months later, he went to the hospital for his final treatment. And that was that.
Whenever I have had back issues in the past or felt weak physically, I would have the tendency to get cranky and irritable. I would remind myself of how my mentor was able to exhibit such equanimity in the face of a literal life-and-death situation. Not that I would immediately mend my ways! But I would pause and smile to myself thinking of him. The amount of power that he derived from a laser-sharp focus on what he could control helped him withstand the debilitating effects of things that he couldn’t control. As much as he derived strength from the moral support he received from family and friends, it was he who led us down the painstaking path of graceful acceptance of life's unsolvable problems. I suppose my Math teacher taught me not just how to count but what really counts.