My best friend in high school, who we will call Mark, was an African American boy whose father was a Rabbi. His father’s immediate family had converted to Judaism a generation or two prior and Mark’s father felt his calling from within his faith. His dad, who we lovingly referred to as “the preacher”, was a sage man who offered many lessons to son, and luckily for me, his son’s friends. Although there were occasions where he was treated like a social pariah by his extended family because his spiritual conversion ran against their cultural heritage, he never failed to use those moments to teach valuable life lessons. Concepts like accepting people who look different than our friends and family, people who believe in different ideas which might even seem outrageous, and of course, those who believe and even worship differently. Having a son whose choices of company were those who liked to mouth off (namely yours truly), he would always remind us to “taste our words before you spit them out”. Having been raised Catholic, Mark’s father intimidated me quite seriously for no obvious reason other than my unfounded (and somewhat ridiculous) worry he would figure me out. He was a tall man with a booming voice who was very well spoken, yet as gentle and comforting as anyone I’ve ever met. When he wasn’t reading or offering advice, he would easily and quite unknowingly display some spectacular element of his intelligence, much to the amazement of anyone around him. In his later years, as Mark embarked on a career in medicine, I asked his father why his faith places such a high premium on education, more so than any other faith which I’ve become familiar. He raised two fingers to his head as if to tap his own temple, cracked a smile obviously filled with wry amusement and responded “it’s easily transported”. Always looking for an opportunity to teach, Mark’s dad explained that no matter the oppression, no matter the physical treasures taken or given, no matter the religious strife of the world, no matter anyone’s feeling or thoughts about you, intelligence cannot be stolen. Once inside your brain, you get to take it with you. Having always treated me like a son, and simultaneously fascinated with Vision Therapy, he was quick to point out the parallels in my job.
During one of our visits ten or so years ago, my Rabbi friend shared he had embarked on teaching a marriage counselling class in his shul, to which I responded by offering to show him “Build and Describe”, a game often played with parquetry blocks. Among other things, the activity demonstrates the difference of intention when it comes to the spoken word, as in the other person may not “hear” the same thing as you think you just said. Communication belongs to the speaker, after all. For months afterwards, I would receive laugh-out-loud funny emails about the latest couple whose lives he enriched with the activity, followed by his own commentary as to whom he felt would benefit from Vision Therapy. Over the years, Mark’s dad seem to take pleasure in reminding me of some gift he felt I had. He would always tell me my soul has found a wonderful combination of compassion, dedication, and kindness, to which I’d softly chuckle and scoff a little, reminding him I just knew to behave myself in his presence. He’d ask me questions about my patients, he’d ask about my conviction to helping so many people, and he’d ask for any wisdom I’d gained since our last conversation. He absolutely loved to hear how someone’s life had been changed for the better through vision therapy. He’d usually end the conversation by reminding me of the importance of being kind to everyone, something he jokingly implored me to teach his son.
I was sad to learn Mark’s father passed away last Friday. Although there are several photographs of the times we spent together, out of respect for the family, I’ll not be including any in this post. Instead, while his family is sitting shiva, I will relish in the memories of a man who taught me many lessons about life; including the great joys found in helping people, the importance removing our own judgments from those whom we encounter, about being kind to everyone, and most importantly, to remember the valuable knowledge we gain in life is ours forever…and it’s easily transported.