Old men never die, they just spout poetry

When I was in residency we rotated through the Veterans Hospital in Portland. Most of our patients were either very elderly or they were alcoholics or addicts in their 50s, starting to really go downhill medically.

One elderly patient is particularly vivid in my memory. He was in his 80s and black. He was weak and had various problems. I was not doing a very good job of sorting him out.

He wouldn’t answer questions. Or rather, he would give a reply, but it was not yes or no and I couldn’t figure out how the answer related to the question.

On the third day he gave a long reply to a question and I recognized it.

“That’s Longfellow,” I said. He nearly smiled. “We did a bike trip around Nova Scotia and read Evangeline aloud in the tents at night. The mosquitos tried to eat us alive. That’s Longfellow, isn’t it?”

He wouldn’t answer but the twinkle in his eye indicated yes.

So our visits were cryptic but fun. I would try to guess the author. He knew acres of poetry, all stored in his brain, no effort. I tried to relate the poems to my questions to see if he was answering indirectly. I wondered if he had schizophrenia and these were answers, but I didn’t think so. I thought he was just stubborn and refusing to answer.

I challenged him. “Ok, you are the right age. Come up with a song with my first name that is from early in the century. My father used to sing it to me when I was little. Can you?”

The next day he sang to me: “K-k-k-katy, beautiful Katy, you’re the only beautiful girl that I adore. When the m-moon shines, over the cow shed, I’ll be waiting by the k-k-k-kitchen door.”

We sat and grinned at each other. Soon afterward I moved on to the next rotation. I don’t remember his medical problems. But I remember him and remember wondering what he had done in his life to have a memory and a store of poetry in his head. A teacher? A professor? A man who loved poetry? I started matching him with my own store of poems, the Walrus and the Carpenter, songs, bits and pieces.  I felt blessed and approved of when his eyes twinkled at me, when I recognized an author or even recognized the poem itself. I looked forward to seeing him on rounds, daily. And he seemed to look forward to my visits. I was sad when I had to say goodbye and the next rotation was out of town. And since he had never told us his name, no way to stay in touch. Farewell, poetry man, fare thee well.