This Poetry Teacher Made a Lasting Impression

She realized that her brother had made a difference for generations of students.  Could she have impacted her patients in the same way?

Posted in , Jun 25, 2021

An illustration of three people conversing in a book with wings; Illustration by Eric Chow

After retiring from a long career teaching English at Huntington East High School, my brother, Bob, planned to travel the world. Instead, I was visiting him in the hospital where he had undergone a triple coronary bypass and an aortic valve replacement. He had a long road to recovery ahead.

Bob didn’t have much experience with being a patient. Certainly not as much as I did. He had always been healthy and kept in good shape, working part-time as a chaplain since retirement. I had grown up with chronic illness, had dozens of surgeries. Even now I was facing a puzzling condition my doctors hadn’t yet identified. A condition that gave me symptoms similar to the ones Bob’s heart ailment gave him. I didn’t want to burden him with my own fears right now—he was grappling with uncertainties about what his ordeal would entail. I stroked his arm that held yet another IV catheter, wondering if I would soon face the same questions.

“I sure wasn’t expecting anything like this,” Bob said. “A failing heart. I can’t believe it.”

“I know it’s a shock. But we’re all here for you. You’re so blessed and loved. Your wonderful wife. Kids. Grandkids. More friends than you can count. I never go anywhere that someone isn’t saying something wonderful about your teaching days.”

“Thanks, Sis. You always say the sweetest things.” But I heard an “If you say so” in his voice.

I tried to reassure Bob about how valuable his life was, but I was trying to convince myself about my own life as well. I’d spent so much of my time trying to help others, both before my retirement as a nurse and now as a storyteller. But the world was full of those. Would anything I’d done really last after I was gone, like the famous poetry Bob taught in class?

A housekeeper entered the room with her mop and nodded to Bob in his bed. “Hey, Coach!” she said.

“Huh?” Bob squinted. He was a little groggy from his medication. I could tell he didn’t know who she was.

The housekeeper smiled. “I knew it was you. My daughter played on your soccer team. I still remember her reciting all those lines of poetry. She loves poems to this day.”

“I’d forgotten you coached soccer,” I said when the housekeeper left. “I think of you strictly as an English teacher.”

“I tried to combine the two pursuits,” Bob said. “I believed in the value of sports but knew few of my students would pursue sports as a career. I wanted to give them something more.”

He smiled to himself. “Those kids could come up with some great lines alright,” Bob said. “Sometimes a lot better than what I taught them.” He closed his eyes, then whispered, “‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both….’” He drifted off to sleep, quoting further from the immortal Robert Frost, one of his favorites. When Bob woke in pain, I hit the call button.

A nurse arrived with medication and a red velour pillow. “Hold this against your chest when you cough. It will keep your stitches secure, Coach.”

I turned my head. She was too young to have known Bob from school. Had he maybe coached a sibling or one of her parents?

“Word is, I need to quote something when I see you,” she continued. “Let’s see… ‘Hope is the thing with feathers.’ Don’t know what it means, but I always liked it.” Clearly Bob’s reputation was traveling through the hospital halls.

I visited Bob every day, sometimes more than once. I was so weak and short of breath, I rested in any available chair en route to his room. But I was drawn there, like a magnet to steel, as much to gain strength as to give strength to my brother.

Each time someone quoted poetry to “Coach,” I got a lift. It wasn’t any of those famous poets the staff was honoring with their words, it was Bob himself. He’d had no idea what an impression he’d made on so many.

One morning a technician came into his room to replace the incentive spirometer he’d been using since before his surgery.

“You’re doing great,” the tech said. “This will keep you from getting pneumonia, Coach. ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’”

“Alfred, Lord Tennyson,” Bob replied without missing a beat.

Just then, another technician entered the room. He was there to do a bedside chest X-ray, but not without getting in on the game. “‘Once more to the sticking place!’” he said as he positioned Bob.

“William Shakespeare!” I jumped in before my brother had a chance.

The poem play didn’t let up. His physical therapist quoted Wordsworth; an orderly chose William Blake. One afternoon a nurse arrived to flush Bob’s tubing. I saw his eyes widen at the giant needle in her hand. I’d distracted many patients in similar situations.

“Heard we gotta say something brilliant here, Coach,” the nurse said. “Here’s one: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’ I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Shakespeare.”

“It’s Doctor Seuss!” Bob said, his face relaxing. “‘There’s no one alive who is youer than you!’”

That line gave me pause. I knew I’d been the best “me” I could be in all my years of nursing. God had made sure of that. Could it be that I’d made the same kind of loving impressions my brother had? I thought of all my former patients who still kept in touch and hoped maybe that was proof I had.

By the time Bob left the hospital for 12 weeks of outpatient cardiac rehab, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’d made the world a better place. His on- and off-the-field poetry lessons had taken on a life of their own, and Bob was feeling positive about his recovery.

My own medical condition was finally identified: a medication error had caused a GI bleed that in turn led to extreme anemia. I fully recovered, thankfully with no heart damage. My attitude fully recovered as well. I didn’t need to be a famous poet to make a mark on the world. Everyday people make a big difference too.

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