After putting in nearly fifteen years as
his autistic, younger brothers guardian, Dr. Davis Totana, a specialist
in scattering theory, returned to the forefront of academia. The initial
results of his comeback, though, were less than spectacular.
At the first research conference that he
attended after resurfacing, Dr. Totana was harangued by a bunch of Ph.D.
candidates who couldnt see past his relative youthfulness. During breaks
and meals, those students sought him, an unknown commodity, to bear
witness to their tales of borrowed grandeur.
Those aspirants achievements were
lived vicariously through the experiences of their chief professors. Thus, it
was of no surprise that those no-names stared, mouths agape, when Davis was
invited to the podium to sit next to the keynote speaker, Professor Kevin
Benin. Unbeknownst to them, Benin was one of Totanas longtime research
For the most part, society ill-treats
folks on the autistic spectrum, deeming them as mentally disabled and
insensitive. Whereas it is true that souls of Rays ilk might have trouble
expressing their feelings, a disproportionate number of them have genius IQs.
Whats more, autistics that grow up in safe, loving homes are measurably
more empathic than are more neurologically typical folks.
Ray was one of those remarkable people.
He effortlessly attended to Davis feelings, knowing, without Davis having
to articulate whether or not his students passed their doctoral exams, whether
or not he succeeded in catching the direct bus to campus, and whether or not he
liked the dinners he cooked for both of them. In fact, Rays profound
ability to understand Davis made the growth of Rays abnormal cells that
much more heart-rending.
Ray ought to have survived. Stomach
cancer has a progression-free survival rate of 57%. There were only crummy
reasons why Ray had succumbed.
For a while, Davis blamed himself. It
had been easier for him to supply Ray with hotdogs and cold cuts than to grill
chicken or to bake fish, principally on days when Davis was spending long hours
hacking at equations, grading papers, or hunting for ways to substantiate his
theories. Plus, Davis, who had a bachelors inclinations, was better at
stocking their kitchen with chips and pretzels than with apples and
It was only after Ray had begun to
experience unexpected, persistent nausea and to lose weight that Davis took
notice. One thing led to another. Soon, Davis found himself holding Rays
hand as Ray was being sedated for an endoscopy. Davis explained the procedure
as Ray swallowing, temporarily, a tiny camera. Ray liked that explanation as he
fancied himself an up-and-coming film director.
That test went less than well. The CT
machine was large and loud. Davis was prohibited from accompanying Ray to the
area housing that terrifying chamber. Although multi-slice helical CT is a boon
for imaging staff, it is an irritant, at best, for average patients.
Exceptional patients, though, also loathe that machine and need more
consideration and compassion than many hospital workers are trained to provide.
When Davis, who was sitting in the
Imaging Departments waiting room, saw two hospital guards and one orderly
rush into the CT room, he ran after them. One of Rays attending
technicians had a bloody nose. The other was massaging his jaw. Ray,
himself, was balled up in a corner of the room, shaking and crying. A quick
thinking nurse squatted near him and began to sing to him. She sung lullabies
she used for her children. A few minutes later, Ray was able to be lifted back
onto the CT table.
He nonetheless continued to be bothered
by the clank of the machines cooling system. Davis noted that the
replacement technicians wore ear covers, but had neglected to offer those noise
modulators to Ray, to him, or to the guard newly stationed in the room. From
that point until the time of Rays death, Davis made it his mission to
learn about patient rights.
Following the scan, Ray became ill with
contrast-induced nephropathy. The dye that had been used to illuminate
Rays innards had caused the problem. None of Rays doctors had
checked his creatinine level before ordering his scan. By the time that anyone
thought to run kidney function tests, Ray was dead.
During his address, Dr. Totanas
friend, Dr. Benin, droned on about his ideas for computational modeling of the
EGF-receptor system. Professor Benin possessed an international reputation for
his prowess with proteomics mapping techniques, specifically, and for his
contributions to systems biology, in general.
After the program, over hamburgers,
Kevin Benin hugged Davis and praised his commitment to his brothers care.
Neither Benin nor anyone else knew that Rays death was why Dr. Davis
Totana had returned to the path of academic prominence. Dr. Totana had assumed
that his fellow mathematicians couldnt cope with that news.
Regardless, the friendship between Benin
and Totana - which had roots in their shared, undergraduate, biochemistry and
electrical engineering courses - thrived. At most meetings, they shared
at least one meal as well as professional and personal anecdotes.
Benin and Totanas class was the
first to graduate from Oakland with a multidisciplinary baccalaureate in
biological engineering. Thereafter, Kevin Benin had pursued a doctorate in
Integrated Life Sciences at Harvard, while Davis Totana had accepted research
assistance from Princetons Department of Mathematics and Physics. Outside
of conferences, the two kept in touch through email.
At some point, Kevin got married and
fathered two children. Davis, though, struggled to acclimate Ray to New Jersey.
Davis considered Mercer Countys adult day care facility to be
outstanding, but Ray protested, daily, about their having had to leave
Michigan. To Ray, familiarity was soothing.
At an early debriefing with Rays
primary doctor, Davis was told that Ray had Stage III adenocarcinoma of the
stomach, i.e. that malignant cells had grown through all of the layers of
Davis brothers abdomen and had spread to his pancreaticolenal
lymphatic nodes. Rays doctor recommended a total gastrectomy as well as
the removal of Rays impacted nodes. In the least, the complex procedures
would make Ray more comfortable. At best, they might eliminate his cancer.
Considerations of radiation or of chemotherapy would have to wait until after
A member of the hospitals
palliative care staff visited Rays hospital room. She interviewed Ray and
Davis, but offered them little new information. Before calling on the next
patient on her clipboards list, she handed Davis a pamphlet about the
hospitals support group for people with abdominal surgeries. He tossed
it-Ray could not understand enough sophisticated concepts to benefit from such
a group and having to interact with lots of people in a confined space would
only trigger many of his anxieties.
Davis, however, did understand what was
going to happen. He wished his brother would die on the operating table as an
alternative to having to endure so many invasive procedures.
He was unfazed when, after Rays
anesthesia wore off, Ray had to be restrained so as not to pull out his
nasogastric tube and his catheter. Mr. Lollipops, Rays stuffed unicorn,
provided little cheer. As Davis had expected, Ray was not only in a lot of
pain, but was also crazy with fear.
Davis spilled tears, but said nothing to
his lone sibling of how Rays third tube, the one in his arm, was in place
of the hamburgers and French fries that had contributed to his dreadful
disease. Ironically, if Ray survived the hospital, given his missing plumbing,
those bad foods, not the good, high fiber ones he
should have been eating, would constitute the bulk of his diet. As it were,
before being discharged, Ray suffered internal bleeding. His new intestinal
seal was horrifically leaky. Ray died.
Davis neither sued the hospital nor
Rays doctors, given the details of the plea bargain arranged by his
lawyer. Simply, when Ray had gone into cardiopulmonary arrest and an intern,
along with an orderly, had made comments about Ray not being worthy of
resuscitating, five foot two, one hundred and sixty pound Dr. Davis Totana had
beat up both of them. After settling out of court, Davis took an extended leave
from his university. He, anyway, continued to engage in his
Kevin and Davis met at succeeding
scholarly assemblies. The further out Davis was from Rays death, the more
that he appeared at national and international academic meetings. To his
dismay, his life grew richer in career accolades, and in hangers-on, the latter
of which included some of those unbearable wannabes from the conference where
Davis had initially reemerged.
All the same, Kevin continued to
encourage him to break out of his solitude, and, explicitly, to find a wife.
Dr. Benin had no idea that outside of his office, his laboratory, and the
multitude of academic meetups where he gave over his findings, Dr. Totana
In part, it was the case that Dr. Totana
lacked rudimentary relationship skills. For decades, he had either been leading
expeditions through higher mathematics or tending to his brothers needs,
but not much else. Sure, he sipped rum in his universitys faculty
commons, and, sure, subsequent to Rays death, he had mountaineered on
foreign cliffs, but otherwise he rarely participated in
To a certain extent, it was the case
that Dr. Davis Totana had a dearth of emotional availability. Having failed to
process his grief over his brother and over others of his major losses, it was
all that he could do to be cordial with his colleagues at school and at
congresses, or to write friendly messages on mathematics listservs.
Last, in some measure, it was the case
that Dr. Davis Totana was a little immature. Neither his framework for studying
and understanding the scattering of waves and particles nor his caring for
his challenged sibling provided the kinds of experiences ordinarily conducive
to romantic relationships. He liked girls. Some of his colleagues were female.
Yet, Davis was dumbfounded when it came to inviting a woman out for
Time passed. During a recess of a
University of Chicago-sponsored seminar, Davis left the venue; he found his
peers pipe smoke disgusting. Walking in a random direction, he
encountered, on a street corner, a decommissioned U.S. Postal relay drop box.
Fixed mail collection boxes are rare.
Those still in use are usually mere chutes connected to brick and mortar post
offices and are found in few neighborhoods. Decades earlier, those receptacles,
which were located in most cities and towns, were fastened to lamp-posts, to
telegraph poles, and to buildings. They evolved into heavy, vandal-proof,
four-legged, free-standing repositories. At present, as most folks use email,
such containers are relics.
The olive green albatross that Davis
stumbled upon boasted reinforced welding and riveted joints. It had a locked
hasp on its door and a curved dome. Davis hugged it. He cried. He cried the
majority of tears that he had held back in Rays hospital room, at
Rays funeral, and during the two plus years when Davis climbed heights in
Europe and Africa. He cried his missing father and his dead mother. He cried
his lack of a wife and his lack of children. He cried his fear at meeting
That forgotten mailbox had called to
mind the mornings when Davis had dropped Ray off at day care. Every single
time, Ray had begged his brother not to leave him behind. Every single time,
Davis had kissed his brother and then made his way to the university where he
was a student and then a professor.
When he could cry no more, Davis pulled
himself along the street. He entered a nondescript bar, where, just inside of
its door, a fellow had taken it upon himself to use three seats. That man had
placed, respectively, his hat, his coat, and himself, all of which were wet, on
Davis, who had not noticed the rain,
smiled at the fellows thoughtlessness. A few drinks later, he was talking
to that consolingly imperfect stranger, telling him about his dead brother and
about how, when he was ten and Ray was eight, they had sat in their
grandmothers kitchen, where pots of brown rice and of blackberry jam had
simmered on the stove. Davis had accidentally knocked into that cooktop in a
way that had made those pots tip over their burning contents onto Ray. Until
that moment in the bar, only Davis mother had known how Ray had been
In answer to Davis disclosure, the
stranger pulled his hat off of one of the stools and laid it on top of his
coat. He motioned for Davis to take that newly empty seat. Davis sat on its
still sodden surface. The stranger hugged him. Davis dropped his head onto the
bar and cried some more.
Dr. Totana hadnt thought that he
had any more tears. He shared with his new benefactor how, until the time that
Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he resented being a caretaker. Even though he
had already lost his mother and having never known his father, Davis
hadnt appreciated Rays preciousness to him. Like the public mail
collection box, Ray, too, would never be revitalized.
The bartender, who stood quietly behind
the counter, refused to serve Davis any more alcohol, but poured him, gratis,
cup after cup of tea. When the bartender took a bathroom break, the man with
the hat and coat poured a little of his own Scotch into Davis teacup.
Davis tilted back and drank. The liquor burned. Davis wails muted into a
The man with the hat and coat then gave
over his story.
The man was a doctor employed by The
University of Chicago, who had, just that day, been told by his
departments tenure review board that he would not be having his contract
renewed. For ten hours, he had been alternating between sitting at the bar and
taking furious walks around the block. The rain had brought him back
Dr. Hat and Coat harped at
Davis that both of them ought to have known better that anxieties can be
converted to mental vigor. On cocktail napkins, he sketched diagrams about how
to transform worries into intellectual proclivity.
Davis had thought that he had been
disclosing his grief to a sympathetic listener, not a stranger who sat in
judgment. Defensively, he asked Hat and Coat about his success with those
Hat and Coat gave answers worthy of a
politician and then put his own head on the bar.
Davis, in turn, poured some of the tea
from his most recent refill into his new acquaintances glass.
Hat and Coat sipped the stuff, slowly,
and then continued. He lamented that it would have been easier for him to
succeed professionally if his lifes mission had been helping medical
students learn diagnoses. It was now a disaster that he had focused, instead,
on pushing the boundaries on treatments with low profit margins. It didnt
pay, literally or figuratively, to care about mankind. If the healthcare field
would have been truly altruistic, he would have received tenure and
Worse, he had no idea how he would
inform his wealthy family, those dear ones who had scoffed at him for spending
long years training to be a physician. They never understood why he wanted to
be a doctor, let alone why he wanted to research and to teach medical students
rather than to make lots of money in private practice.
Once the bar closed for the night, Davis
returned to his hotel. Hat and Coat, that is, Dr. Ivan Flinders, pediatric
oncologist, hailed a taxi home.
Davis reread the card that Ivan Flinders
had given him and then Googled the man. His new friend was a millionaire. It
almost made sense that he had asked Davis to meet him, in the morning, on
Merrill C. Meigs mothballed runway.
Ivan, a pilot, and a private helicopter
waited for Davis on that airstrip. Davis asked no questions about how Ivan
Flinders had secured permission for a rotocraft to land and to take off there.
Similarly, Ivan asked Davis nothing of how he had gotten past the barriers
leading to the abandoned airfield.
In silence, they flew to South Bend,
from where they took a commercial flight to Washington D.C. Still exhausted
from crying, Davis spent the entirety of the flight sleeping in his cushy first
class seat. Ivan allowed himself to be preoccupied with his smart phone. His
family was very alarmed with the goings on in his life.
At Ronald Reagan National, Ivan had
their bags shuttled to an expensive hotel. He ordered a cab and told Davis they
were going elsewhere. Until they arrived at the National Postal Museum, Davis
looked out of his window and frequently sighed. There was no Ray to return home
to and his classroom responsibilities wouldnt begin until the new
semester. His research could wait.
Expectedly, among all of the
museums interesting artifacts, especially its exhibits on the Antarctic
post office, on the history of mail bags, and on pneumatic mail, it was the
Bonbobi mailbox that called to Davis. The Southern Oaks Community of Santa
Clarita had realized that their curbside mailboxes were not in compliance with
the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, after searching for a mailbox
type whose proportions would allow a wheelchair to pass on the sidewalk, they
ordered the Bonbobi.
Davis began crying anew. Ivan gently
ushered him out of the museum. Ivan had had no idea what might catalyze further
release for his new friend, but had suspected that the museum might provide an
answer. He had failed as a humanitarian in holding his place within an
important university and medical center, but he could still and intended to
always provide solace on an individual level.
Ivan never returned to academia. His
brothers made a place for him in the family business. He renewed his license
until his old age and kept limited clinic hours, reserving most of that time
for citizens lacking health insurance. He remained untenured among his peers,
but became a hero to the masses.
Kevin Benins children grew up and
had children of their own. In due course, Kevin and his wife, Mary,
retired to the city where their youngest daughter lived. Other mathematicians
took over Kevins line of research.
Davis continued on at Princeton. He
dated many comely, intelligent, and good-natured professors, but married none
of them. Whenever possible, he urged the increasing number of people with whom
he interacted to think twice before disparaging individuals because of apparent
differences. Dr. Davis Totana dedicated his final book to Drs. Kevin Benin and