Søren Kierkegaard famously pointed out that the only way we can understand life is backwards – we are compelled to…
by Peter Kerry Powers
Winner of the New Philosopher Writers’ award VII: ‘health’
My father built a hospital in the highlands of Papua New Guinea some 50 years ago. Kudjip Nazarene Hospital, tin-roofed and cross-shaped, housed 100 daily inpatients and scores of outpatients who came to my father, the only doctor in the Wahgi valley. Unlike our present experience of medicine, with specialists in everything from discoloured phlegm to ingrown toenails, my father and his team of nurses were the only game in town. He was a general practitioner, a GP, a term that has lost its lustre more recently, with medical students opting for narrow specialties and big money. But in Papua New Guinea he was both thoracic surgeon and bed pan emptier, OBGYN, oncologist, and sometimes preacher on Sunday mornings. It was a different, can-do idea of expertise. At the world’s extremes being pretty good at the many things necessary to the moment is highly prized, more so than the narrow excellences of the modern world.
My father was also a storyteller. Our dinner table was enlivened by family lore and church politics, and by stories of unusual cases at the hospital. I’m not sure if it is universally true of medical families, but we took our meals to tales of abscesses and seeping wounds, ruptured spleens, the various and sundry effects of dysentery. As a seven-year-old boy, I found all of this wildly enthralling. I spent many hours in the night poring over my copy of Gray’s Anatomy, thinking I would follow my father into medicine.
Through my father’s stories, I also learned about the peculiarities of human culture, the ways it ennobles, but also damages. The Indigenous belief that epileptics were possessed by demons, and so were shunned by their villages; or the belief that a toothache was caused when you spat accidentally on a spirit of the ubiquitous dead. Or, the peculiar American belief that the nakedness of the tribal people was shameful, and so the horrific skin diseases endured by children wearing the used clothes of philanthropic Americans.
We returned home to Oklahoma after four years, my father’s dream of a life-long mission cut short by his own exhausted health and, indirectly at least, by the still-strong belief in the church that ministries of the flesh took too much from ministries of the word. Why pay for a doctor to save a body when you could pay for a preacher and save a soul? The temporary health of the flesh paled against the yardstick of eternity.
Back home, New Guinea stories were avidly repeated. The Nazarenes did not go to the movies, bowling alleys, the circus, or skating rinks, and we did not dance, drink, or play cards, so listening to missionary stories in the family living room was a pious entertainment. At gatherings, my father would haul out slide carousels to present an oral history of the New Guinea mission and his family. He particularly loved his pictures of medical oddities: the woman with a prolapsed uterus, the infant with an un-developed Siamese twin hanging from her back like a tail, the children with scabies so severe that their skin bled.
There was also a picture of the man we called ‘Maggots’, an epileptic who had been left to die in the jungle. My father heard about him through rumour and report, and trekked into the bush to see about it. The man had had a seizure and fallen into a fire. Think-ing he was possessed, the villagers had left him untended in a hut, blinded in one eye and with severe burns over 90 per cent of his body. My father and his Indigenous orderlies found him and, as best they could, cleaned and dressed his wounds, hauling him back to Kudjip on a litter.
The man lay semi-comatose for several days. After a time, a nurse came on to the ward to change his dressings. As she unwound the fabric bandages that had covered his burns, a slow river of wriggling maggots poured steadily from his wounds, fall-ing onto the bedsheets and to the floor beside him. Hence his rechristening, a name given by some of the orderlies, and, from what any of us could tell, a moniker he took to proudly for his remaining days.
This story drew moans and shivers from my father’s American audiences, while he laughed to hear them. He told it while showing a picture of Maggots standing proudly, if some-what painfully, with the assistance of a crutch, an orderly standing by. For Maggots had lived to walk. A kind of Lazarus to our missionary minds. This miracle was due less to his medical care, my father pointed out, than to the maggots that turned the stomach. The fly larvae, hatching and wriggling and eating by blind impulse, had been a natural antiseptic, consuming Maggots’ rotten flesh; flesh that without their frenzy would almost certainly have turned to infection or gangrene. Even for a young person, this was evidence written in stone that the world was fearfully and wonderfully made, when a burned man could walk again, when the body of a fly could infest a man and cure him, that your old flesh had to die and be consumed to let new flesh grow, that a sign of death could be a sign of life. It was a lesson in metaphor, to not take things literally, or at least not for what they had been taken to be – to look for the light beneath the moan and shiver.
Maggots eventually died, only a few weeks after his picture was taken. As a child, this struck me as merely eerie: a picture of a resurrected man who would be dead in a week or two or three from kidney failure. Later, Maggots’ life and death signified the dignity of my father’s work, and a watchword for my own. Every person my father healed, in a very long and generous career, is dead, or on the way. As am I. As are we all.
If I followed at all in my father’s footsteps it was by becoming a man of stories and their meanings. Some-times, too piously, I think of it as being a physician of the mind and imagination. As a younger person, still thinking I would write the great American novel, I believed the romantic platitude that writers and artists and great intellectuals deal in things eternal, pilgrims of the great quest to write something that will last forever. I no longer think so. All things, like the body, pass. I tell students in English classes that my father worked endlessly, with all the creativity, energy, and ingenuity he had, to heal people he knew would no longer be living in 20 years, or perhaps even in a week or a day. And that, like it or not, this will be true of their stories and poems and essays as well. What we call the great cultures of the past are given to us in hints and fragments, scattered detritus that spurs the imagination of philosophers and literary critics. Entire scholarly industries are given to the task of ‘recovery’, as if our efforts can breathe life into the body of the past. Perhaps they can, for a moment.
But the stories and poems and philosophies we write or tell or teach are for the healing of the present time, rather than the plaudits of posterity. I tell my students that their poems and stories ought to be about the difference they will make to their readers now, rather than the august readers they imagine in some unlikely future. They should take part in the task that the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the healing of the world’s wounds”. If we are to believe the poet John Milton, the true end of learning, and so of life, is to repair the ruin of our first parents. We and our world are that ruin, in body and soul. This world, and not some other.
My father passed away last March, in the grip of Alzheimer’s that took his stories long before it took his body. When, a few years back, I had to help him remember the word “football”, I knew that his stories were lost to us forever, except in the fragments we would remember and mis-tell at rare family reunions. This struck me as a greater loss than the loss of his body at his last breath. Like many of the regretful living, I wished for a while that I had recorded his stories on video, or that I had written them down. But now, mostly, I think that my father’s stories served their purpose in his tell-ing of them, as we gathered around him in a living room or at a dining table. Through them we saw new worlds, and old worlds in new ways. We heard them and had the saving grace of wonder and of laughter. Through them he gathered us. Not the stories but the storyteller.
He gathered us.
This piece was selected as the winner of New Philosopher Writers’ Award VII ‘health’. Awards are held each quarter, for details on how to enter click here.