“I have found liberation in being able to say good-bye to those I love.”I have found liberation in being able to say good-bye to those I love.”
Sometimes even a seasoned classroom professor learns from a student. My brilliant philosophy student, Charles, dying from terminal cancer, was able to say good-bye to us in such a loving and brave way that it became our most memorable philosophy lesson. His liberation from fear and resentment helped all of us begin to travel on the true path of philosophy, beyond books to the “love of wisdom” in everyday life.
Charles, an African-American fresh out of prison, with the help of Pastor Jerry, dramatically turned his life around from drugs, gangs and violence to a healthy passion for learning – and sharing. He came to see me at Edgewood College early on and tried to explain.
“See, Prof, I don’t really resent those years in the Big House ’cause I’d been in trouble with the law ever since I was a kid. My dad was an alcoholic and mentally ill. One day in a fit of rage he beat and strangled my mom to death – right in front of me … . I’ve never been right, ever since. I almost did the same thing to my girlfriend and that’s how I got to prison. And in prison, especially in solitary confinement, I had to face myself, like Socrates said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’”
Charles became such a leader in my classes that I asked him to be my assistant on our class trips to the United Nations in New York City, and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Charles was an empathic leader, and he had a way of asking Socratic questions that provoked deep thinking. As I began to struggle with my own chronic illness, he helped keep my classes going — always with a sardonic, but compassionate, sense of humor. We grew close over years of working together, like father and son.
Charles sometimes complained of neck and shoulder pain, but when I urged him to see a doctor he’d shrug: “Life always has pain. Besides, no insurance, no money.” Finally, I got him to the Madison Free Clinic. But by then the CT scans and MRI’s verified that the cancer was too far gone. Charles had less than a year to live. Thus, the cost of a U.S. medical system based on profit.
Charles asked me to speak at his memorial service. But all I can remember is standing there in front of the microphone, struggling with tears and wondering how a troubled young man could completely turn his life around, help so many others with his example – even teach his teacher about life – and then have it all cut off in the prime of his youth. The world tragically lost a true philosopher.
Before he left us, Charles gave me a last wisdom-gift, one that helps me through my own medical journey. “Treasure every moment of every extraordinary, ordinary day. It’s all a gift.”
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently concluding a long academic calling at Edgewood College and looking forward to being a freelance philosopher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Friedel-Hunt’s “Living Well, Dying Well” column will return next month.