A Vocation Story: The Hug I Never Gave

In this photo: Ryan Mak, S.J. at the grave of Fr. Bob. Ryan says, "unfortunately, from those novice days, I didn't get a chance to snag a photo of Bob and I together, but I do have this one from when I went to visit his resting place. It's the same day I wrote the original thoughts of this reflection. Rest in peace, my dear friend."

I thought being passionate meant enjoying an activity or job so much that I would always be happy. But it was not until I met my friend Bob that I would have my heart opened to the true depths of passion.

I met Bob when I was a first year Jesuit novice living in Massachusetts. I was spending a couple months discerning whether or not medical school would be part of my Jesuit journey while also living at Campion Center, a home for convalescing Jesuits from the New England area. Meanwhile, Bob was moving towards the end of his Jesuit life having recently stepped down from many years of teaching at universities throughout the country. After about ten years of living with cancer, he no longer had the energy to continue his work.

We were quite different. I was a 22 year old kid from California, wore shorts and flip-flops, carried myself with an informal San Diego vibe, and spent my free time running around and playing sports. Bob was from the opposite side of the country having grown up in a small town in Massachusetts and had a much more serious persona, although he was a master of witty humor and clever word play. He presented himself formally as one would expect of a highly educated professor. But despite this stereotypical juxtaposition of West Coast versus East Coast personalities, I found myself gravitating towards him.

One day, Bob invited me to accompany him to his hometown. We drove down to southeastern Massachusetts and shared a meal with his brother. We played with the dogs and walked around the large property as he recounted stories of his younger days. Afterwards, we took a detour crossing into Rhode Island and pulled into a public beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Bob told me to go and stick my hand in the water, “Now you can tell people you’ve made it to the other coast.” I was far from home, beginning an uncertain path towards becoming a Jesuit-physician. That day Bob made me feel like I belonged, like I was part of his family.

Returning home to the novitiate in California, I missed Bob tremendously. Everyday I wondered: Would I see him again? Is he in pain? Was there anything I could do from so far away to let him know how much I care? I felt inadequate. I couldn’t do anything medically to treat him, and I couldn’t even be present with him. We kept in touch through e-mails and phone calls. I sent him silly photos and videos hoping to help him smile through rounds of chemotherapy or days lost to fatigue. Despite all of these, I felt like it wasn’t enough.

***

I was sitting in my graduate philosophy class when I received news that Bob was close to death. I sprinted home, closed myself in my room, and immediately called Bob’s nursing staff. I asked if they could hold the phone to his ear so I could whisper some final words good-bye to him.

They said it wouldn’t be possible.

Once again, I felt inadequate. There was no action that would allow me to express my love for him as he passed from this life.

Not until 5 years after Bob’s death, could I finally return to Massachusetts to visit the cemetery where Bob was buried. I ran up and let my tears fall onto the grave as I wrapped my arms around his tombstone finally giving him the hug I never gave him while he was alive: the hug I would have given him when I last saw him had it not been for the painful tube placed in his chest. The hug I wanted to give him right before he died had I not been living in a different part of the country; the hug I would give him every day if he were still around to listen to the ups and downs of medical school; the hug he deserves for changing my life.

The pain in my heart that day stung like the day of his death. My mind was filled with the sound of his voice, the conversations we shared, and the suffering through which I had accompanied him. As I sat by his grave, I realized that my deepest desire had not changed one bit these past five years. All I want is to show my love and care for Bob.

***
My very first rotation as a third year medical student found me on the hematology-oncology service, a subspecialty of internal medicine focusing on diseases of the blood and cancers. I visited my first patient: a middle-aged man suffering from cancer ready to share his story with me. After conducting a health history and physical exam, I reassured him, “We’re going to do everything we can to care for you.” I walked out, paused, and smiled as I remembered Bob.

As a man of faith, I believe Bob is still alive. He is alive every time my heart sinks when I meet a patient with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I couldn’t give Bob a final hug good-bye, but I give him that hug every day as a physician-in-training. Bob helped me to understand my passion and showed me how to express the love in my heart through the care I give my patients. Words cannot express my love for Bob, I hope my actions can.

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Photo courtesy of the author.

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