“Cultured” is among synonyms for elegant.
As a colleague of his recently observed, my husband Jim was an elegant man. But that came at the end of my story.
The beginning of April brought another Dr. Jim Memorial Lecture.
This was what my husband very deliberately chose as his legacy at the hospital where he worked: a series of lectures exploring cutting-edge issues in the delivery of medical care.
After the lecture, I spoke to several of my husband’s colleagues. One was smiling broadly: he told me that the very same graph that had lingered on the wall behind the speaker–a graph that had accompanied an article a few years ago in a medical journal–had so intrigued Jim that he had called a meeting to discuss the import of the data it presented.
Jim had projected the same chart onto the conference room wall, and had asked his fellow physicians to consider the data: he thought it too soon to figure out exactly what it meant for them and their organization, but knew it was worth thinking about.
Dr. Bob sat next to me during the lecture, and confessed afterwards that he was mining his brain to try to come up with the questions Jim would have asked.
I told him I thought the doctor sitting right behind us had come up with the questions Jim would have asked.
And here is where we circle back, from a bright spring day to a frigid winter one I can see just as clearly.
Because it turned out that the doctor sitting behind us and asking those questions was someone I had last seen on what Jim and I did not know at the time would be our last date night out.
For Jim’s last Christmas, one of our daughters gave us a dinner out and a choice of nearby concerts. Jim decided he’d like to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who were coming to town at the end of January.
At the time, we knew it would be Jim’s last winter, but he looked terrific. He had not yet been hit hard by the brutal symptoms which would quickly follow. As he memorably said to one person who asked him how he was early that winter, “For a guy with metastatic pancreatic cancer, I’m great.”
We went out to dinner, as we’d done so many times since we were college students. As was typical, Jim was dressed for the occasion and I idiotically sported thin ballet flats in inches of icy slush as we navigated our way to the restaurant.
Jim, who would not be able to eat in a matter of short weeks, enjoyed his meal. A man greeted him from the other side of the restaurant and said, “It’s good to see you,” in a tone I could only read as, “It sure is a surprise to see you out and about.”
Because in that surreal season, everyone knew.
And Jim simply never looked or behaved as one would expect a terminally ill man to do.
After dinner we made our way through freezing rain to the nearby theater. Our seats were in the balcony, where we found ourselves right in front of a doctor I hadn’t seen in years and who Jim saw regularly.
The doctor introduced us both to his wife, and I remember Jim speaking with the two of them about the lead singer and the band. I didn’t know anything about them, but was not the least bit surprised to hear Jim speak about their history, the influences of their past producers, their intersections with other musicians and music.
Jim’s interests and knowledge were vast: astronomy, politics, medicine, music, history, photography, geography, health care policy.
So back to the memorial lecture.
The doctor we had seen that winter night at the concert was also the one who channelled Jim’s questions to the speaker. After the lecture he took my hand and said when he came back from Jim’s memorial service, he told his wife who the service was for and his wife remembered Jim from that lone meeting in the dark balcony. She said he was an elegant man.
Elegant. Cultured: “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.”
I am relentless–not necessarily in a good way. Jim was relentlessly elegant.
Whether one had met him once at a concert, knew him only from work, or lived with him, he epitomized culture because he was a man of excellence divorced from ego. It was a matter of both substance and inherent style: he always loved to learn more, about so many things, and shared that knowledge in a self-effacing way. He was a born teacher.
I can so easily visualize him projecting that colorful chart when it first was published. Jim’s unbelievably quick mind (the one all our children fortunately inherited) would have spun out all the underlying data and searched through it for hypotheses he and others could consider and put to use in new protocols and systems.
(I looked at the chart and thought how nicely symmetrical it was, and how it looked a bit like a Galapagos sea tortoise if you squinted.)
I could hear him say, “I don’t have the answers, but there’s something interesting here and let’s think about it.”
It’s an elegant approach to life.