“Flowers for the living, I always say!”
The recent death of inventor Steve Jobs affected many people deeply. I listened to tributes to him on the radio, saw many of them on the internet and on Facebook and realized he changed not only the computer and technology industries, but also affected the lives of people from all walks of life. Apple computers, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, Pixar Animation Studios and his constant quest to make things better in spite of his original diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2004 are evidence of this and much more.
That reminded me of the death of television journalist Tim Russert in 2008. He was the moderator of Meet the Press on NBC and famously predicted several presidential elections on the air. He honored his father, “Big Russ” and lived a life devoted to the memory of his father and to being a good family man. Tributes to him were everywhere after his passing and were well deserved.
My uncle Lloyd (everyone called him Punkin) bought my first car for me when I was 12. I got into my first car accident with it when I was 14. I was drunk at the time. After my dad’s suicide when I was 4 years old, Punkin came to get me often. We had fish traps in the river and checked them before the sun came up so we could avoid the game wardens. Even as a little kid, I knew I was a great help to him by holding the spotlight from the passenger seat of the car as he shot deer at night from the driver’s seat. I never wavered with the light and he never missed.
Hulda was Punkin’s mother and she and I shared the same birthday. She was no stranger to her husband going on week long binges and accepted that and poverty as her lot in life. We shared the same birthday and the only time she ever drank was on our birthday when we split a can of warm Grain Belt beer. She loved her son and her grandsons and that same love extended to me. She never once criticized or raised her voice to me and always welcomed me in.
When I was 17, I had no inkling that medicine was in my future. I knew Hulda had been in the hospital, but I didn’t know any details beyond that. I stopped in and she came out of the house to meet me.
“My stomach was hurting and the doctor in the hospital took me into surgery to see what was causing it. They opened me up and found out my belly is all filled with cancer. They just closed it back up and sent me home.”
She had me feel her belly and I could feel how hard and distended it was. She was deeply saddened, but I didn’t know what the word cancer even meant at the time and I didn’t know this was a death sentence for her. With her widely metastatic cancer, she died within a few weeks.
What does this have to do with Steve Jobs and Tim Russert?
Both of them were heroes and an inspiration to all of us. Great people like that rise to the top and change the direction of the entire world. The list of names is long and includes Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Galileo and others.
But what about heroes in our day to day lives? They’re all around us. Grandparents raising their grandchildren, single parents, teachers and counselors, those who help our kids get into college.
Punkin was my hero when I was growing up and he still is. He died shortly after I graduated residency. The reason I’m not still drinking and shining deer are because of others who stepped in when I needed them.
I first came to the University of Minnesota in Duluth after I graduated high school in 1976. I had never been in a place that big before and I was very well aware of my country upbringing. No one in my family had ever gone to college and I was totally clueless. There were long lines for classes and I was too shy to go to the front of the line to see what classes they were and all the other students seemed to know what they were doing.
I was alone and ended up standing in lines only to have the class fill up before I got to the front. There would be a mad rush as all the students left would run to the line for their next choice. I didn’t have a next choice and would finally wander to another line, only to have the class fill up again before I could get to the front.
Finally, Jay Newcomb spotted me. He was an instructor in the American Indian Studies department and he could spot a lost student a mile away. He had me sign up for his classes and told me I could cancel out of them and get into the classes I wanted once classes started.
He asked me where I was staying and I had to admit I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Everything I owned was in a green canvas duffle bag sent to me from Vietnam by my friend Jimmy. He had me grab the bag and told me I could stay with him and his family for a few days.
I ended up staying with them for two years. His wife, Mary B and their kids, Autumn and Rain became my family in Duluth. Jay and I drove to New York and to California in his old Datsun pickup as he was looking at other jobs over the years. He called the truck “The Streak” and it had a silver plywood camper on the back with a plexiglass window in the front of the roof. We slept on a foam mattress and looked at the stars as we talked late at night. Jay has a dedication to helping Native American students and I could see it from the minute he pulled me out of the line for choosing classes. He doesn’t give up on students and if there was ever one to give up on, it was me.
I have many heroes and want to give credit to all of them. Some of them I just met, some I have yet to meet and some have passed on.
I used to bring lilacs to Hulda every spring and she would tell me…
“Flowers for the living, I always say!”
She was right. We shouldn’t wait to say all the things we need to say to important people in our lives, our heroes. We need to say those things NOW.
Flowers for you, Jay Newcomb! Thanks for changing my direction.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.