Like many medical schools, fairly early in the first term mine presents a memorial service for families whose loved ones donated their bodies as cadavers for Gross Anatomy. While I've referenced our service in another blog post, I've never revealed how I came to be one of the student speakers for the service celebrated by my entering class, the UNE Class of 2010.
It came about in the late evening chill of September 17, 2006. September usually acts like summer in my native Colorado, unless it gets a wild hair and decides to imitate winter with an early season snowfall, as it did in 1997, dropping 30 inches overnight. Here in Maine, there's no denying September is autumn, especially in the evening and especially near the coast. My school is within walking distance of the Atlantic Ocean and even though days are comfortably warm, when the sun goes down so goes the temperature.
For our service, the new class is positioned on the east side of the staging area. They're really present as witnesses, but because they constitute a wall protecting the celebrants and families from intrusion, I like to think of them as Guardians of Reverence. The previous year's class, the one for whom this service is most meaningful. is seated with the family members and faculty. An honor guard, led by a piper, opens the ceremony. Clad in dark blue Yankee uniforms from the Civil War and bearing Old Glory and the state flag of Maine, they are a sight to see.
Why the Civil War and not modern uniforms? This is New England and history is honored here. Our service and the internment of ashes takes place on the rim of a cemetery on campus that dates from the 1600s. Old slate gravestones mark the names of those whose sons and daughters gathered at First Parish Meeting House that used to stand on this very spot (it has since been relocated a mile away) and listened as the Declaration of Indepedance was read aloud in 1776. I stopped once on my way home, and at the invitation of a groundskeeper, stepped inside. It is plain and simple, with white wooden pews covered with black velvet seat pillows. Along the back walls are photos of veterans dating from 1861; the smells of must and dust and time are as vivid as the afternoon sunlight that streams through old, single pane windows. In the silence, you can't help but hear, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."
Following an introduction by the Anatomy faculty, two or three students take the podium to speak on behalf of their classmates and try to put into words what it's meant to work so intimately with the bodies of persons we've never met. There are words of thanks and appreciation that we hope become words of comfort to family members who've waited a year to see their loved ones laid to rest, here, at the end of the world.
After the service is over, people mingle and chat, the first years leave early because Gross Anatomy for them is far from over and it seems there's always an exam pending. I wandered over to Dr. Neal Cross, our professor and the director of the anatomy program, and we talked about this and that. I was struggling in anatomy, despite having done well as a premed, and he and I had discussed my situation in detail. The truth is, I was afraid my first term in medical school would be my last. Somewhere in the mix, Dr. Cross said to me, "You should be a speaker next year."
I responded, "You really think I'll still be here?" I resisted adding, "Are you nuts?"
"You'll be here," he said, nodding, "though I may not be. In either case, I'll make sure you're on the list of student speakers." He asked me to keep it to myself, which I did, but he was contemplating accepting another faculty position elsewhere and mine proved to be his last year teaching in Maine.
I went home with a small, dim but real, glimmer of hope that helped get me through the rest of the term, despite the fact that I'd have to repeat anatomy the following summer. Dr. Cross was right. I made it to next year and the years following, all the way to graduation. I don't know what he saw in me or what he knew. I didn't ask and he didn't say. Some things, I guess, are best left where they lay, behind the scenes.
This past weekend, Dr. Neal Cross passed away, far too young and far too soon. I'm told a motorcycle accident was partly to blame. Though we never had any contact after he moved on, I've never forgotten the faith he gave me that night and I never will.
(Photo of Dr. Neal Cross courtesy of the University of New England, all rights reserved)