This week in 1994, Ace of Base had the number one song, but our generation was still mourning the loss of Kurt Cobain. Nelson Mandela had just been inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Shannon Faulkner (remember her?) was making headlines nationally and locally in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was finishing my second year of medical school.
That same week, my uncle Skip Keller celebrated his final Memorial Day with visits from his closest friends and family members, his sister (also my mother) among them. Two short days later, Uncle Skippy died from complications associated with pancreatic cancer. He was fifty years old.
Skippy had been sick for a long time, relatively speaking, having been diagnosed nearly two years prior. An amazing oncologic surgeon named John Bell operated on him and placed a beautiful stint which allowed my uncle a remarkably good quality of life during the first eighteen months of his diagnosis. Skippy was able to eat. This man easily weighed in at 350 pounds during his prime. He LOVED to eat. He was also able to play eighteen holes of golf several times a week during that time.
As his favorite and only niece, I was very sad when news of his death came. Our family is small to begin with, and my grandparents on that side were both still living. I wanted, naturally, to go home and be close to my family, to my mother and my brother, to my Mommaw and Gran. I longed to be close and to lean on and lean in, sharing our grief. But it was the end of May/first of June, and part I of the medical boards loomed less than three weeks away. Every minute of study time felt essential as I was attempting to make four semesters’ worth of classes both integrated and readily accessible to my over-full and over-tired brain. I simply didn’t have three to four days to take off for the funeral.
Everyone at home understood, agreed even, that I should stay in Charleston and study. School was most important right now. Days were spent huddled in cubicles at the library, breaks taken for food and exercise. Nights were spent in my apartment. This was SERIOUS studying and people tended to be more social when at the library in the evening hours. It was easier for me to be productive at my kitchen table on the tenth floor of the Ashley House. Easier, too, to grieve in private.
So, early one evening later that week, my friend Nancy and I were headed back to my building as we had carpooled that day. Nancy pulled up to the entrance. I dug keys out of backpack and opened the passenger door. As I began to make my way out of the car, she exclaimed, “Wait! Get back in!”
Eyes merry and mouth wide in smile she said, “I’m kidnapping you . . .” And away she drove. Honestly, I was too relieved to protest. What ensued that night remains to this day a favorite memory. We were not dressed to go “out,” but we smiled our way into McCrady’s, one of Charleston’s finest and our favorite restaurants. A wonderful dinner of steak tartare followed by shrimp and bow-tie pasta in a Tasso gravy, I still remember the smells and tastes of that night; the crusty bread, the wine. After dinner and in no mood to stop now, we headed around the corner to the Blind Tiger, a watering hole on Broad Street, and procured a bar stool and glass of wine for each of us. We talked and laughed, and maybe I cried, and for sure we laughed some more, until the wee hours arrived and sleep bore down hard and heavy and insistent.
In the following days we continued to study, and I continued to grieve, the sorrow still near but not quite as cumbersome. We had held a proper wake for my uncle, however unconsciously. I was indeed surrounded by family, just born of a different type of blood. Another powerful lesson – the importance of play- was integrating itself among the four semesters’ worth of learning, helping form the foundation of the woman and physician I was becoming.