Saturday, August 25, 2012

Cutting for Stone -- A great reading experience

Cutting for Stone, this  intriguing first novel by Dr. Abraham Verghese pulls the reader into the story at once. His characters are people you want to know more about. The story takes place in countries scattered over  three continents and involves a variety of ethnic and religious groups:  Indians, British, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Americans, and more.  People worship one or many gods. All struggle. Some win, some lose, some find peace.  

Young, beautiful Sister Mary Joseph Praise from India is the operating room nurse assisting a brilliant British surgeon Dr. Stone at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.  She learned to know him on the ship coming from India, nursing him to health when he became deathly ill.  He may be a great surgeon but is a flawed human being. Personal relationships are not his strength.

The unexpected premature  birth of the twins  Marion and Shiva to  this nun  is the setting for this novel of passion, personal and political trauma,  and family rifts, and a resolution that leaves one wondering – and yet content. 

The question I am asked is the meaning of the title “cutting for stone.”   The Internet informs me that the phrase derives from the Hippocratic Oath that doctors swear on graduation from medical school.  No surgeon cuts for stone (kidney?) if there is someone better equipped to that. 

This theme of cutting is introduced early in the novel at the impending birth of the twin boys, the main characters.  The Matron of Missing Hospital  stands helplessly over  Sister Mary Joseph’s dying body. She says to Stone, a skilled surgeon: “Your patient, Dr. Stone.”  She wants him to cut, to do a C-section, but he is helpless, unable to function because he loved the woman dying  before  him.  He attempts an abortion with an anatomy book propped in front of him, planning  to crush  the skull and pull the infant out. 

Fortunately,  Dr. Hemalatha, gynecologist, arrives to “cut,” perform a C-section, only to discover that there are two babies waiting to be born. She names them Marion and Shiva.   The babies are joined at the head by a shaft, which she cuts not knowing whether that will start a massive bleed or be the babies’ salvation.  That mashing of one baby’s head is key to later events. Her cut saves their lives.

Both boys become surgeons and Marion, who should have been born second in a normal birth, is the first to see the light of day in a C-section.  I am reminded of the story of Jacob and Esau, sons of the patriarch Isaac, who all their lives vied with one another for their father’s affection, with firstborn Esau selling his birthright to his brother.  

The author enjoys double meanings, so “cutting for stone” as well as  other terms and events have  more than one meaning that weave in and out of the action.  The setting for the book is Missing Hospital, yet the original name for this institution is Mission Hospital. Because it was often misspoken by native speakers, some clerk registered it as Missing Hospital, and that’s what it became.  People and objects are often missing in this novel.  Yet missing does not mean the matter is ended. 

Missing is a finger of Dr. Stone’s hand which he self-amputated when it became infected.  Because he only has four fingers on that hand he is able to poke into body cavities with greater facility than someone with five.  The finger shows up later in a bottle of formaldehyde and becomes a symbol of something bigger than a mere digit.

Missing also is the doctor’s memory of how he impregnated this young nun. It is a mystery to him although he knows he was deeply in love with her.  

Missing also is a letter the desperate young nun wrote to her lover, Dr. Stone, before her death.  It doesn’t show up until the end in the “afterbird,” the Amharic mispronunciation of “afterbirth.” It reveals the events leading up to the  conception.

Missing is Stone as the father of these boys during  their growing up and development. 

But back to “cutting for stone.” The twin boys are brought up by Hema and Ghosh, surgeons at Missing Hospital, in a loving home. Both boys become surgeons, Marion through formal education, Shiva through self-education. Shiva  becomes a  surgeon of women with fistula, a tragic condition that afflicted countless African women  because they were married too  young, received nonexistent prenatal care and came too late for help after the baby was already jammed down the birth canal and hospitals where C-sections could be performed  too distant.  The result was a fistula, or tear between bladder and vagina, causing persistent dribbling of urine.  Such women soon reeked and were ostracized by husband, family and community.  Shiva becomes the world’s expert on fistula surgery and leading advocate for women  in Third World countries for better care of women.

Women with fistula found their way to Shiva by bus, foot, and donkey.  They often came with a piece of paper in their hand that simply said in Amharic “Cutting for Stone.   Shiva Stone was the expert without having taken the Hippocratic oath.

This is a great novel because, first of all, it is a good story.  It makes the reader want to know what’s coming next.  What will happen to the twins? Will they ever be united with their absentee father?  The reader soon begins to care for them and their generous caretakers Hema and Ghosh and about the conflicts in their lives, which, though in a different culture, are not so different from ours – family tensions, personal traumas, political turmoil.   

The novel is also gripping because the actions of the main characters move them ahead—or backwards. There is clear cause and effect. The twins, their father, their adoptive parents,  and other characters in the story live out their lives using their strengths and weaknesses,  but not without consequences.  

I recommend the book. I understand it has already sold millions. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Okay, life isn't fair, so what?

What is the best piece of advice someone has given you? 

Someone asked that question and for a moment I couldn't think of an answer. 

My father often mentioned that life isn’t fair. I don’t  think he offered this comment as advice as much as a statement of fact he had learned to be true. He grew up disadvantaged as far as education, social standing, and money were concerned.  But he had above-average intelligence and a huge curiosity as well as compassion for people’s needs. He worked hard to make life a little fairer for people in worse circumstances than his.   

 I didn’t understand his words of wisdom until much, much later, when I was hit with the overwhelming blow  of low income  and single parenthood.

It took me a while to realize  that it’s not what life does to you that matters, but what you do with life. I read the words of the psalmist again and again, “Who passing through the valley of Baca (bitterness) make it a well.”   So I started climbing out of my personal valley of sorrow and bitterness. And climbing. And climbing.  Sometimes it was just clambering.

A second piece of advice came to me much later. I don’t know who said it. But the words were simple:  Be yourself. Don’t try to be like some great person.  Prefer mentors to models.  The temptation is always to use the rich, famous and powerful as models – the celebrity, the powerful, the  top icon on the totem pole.  Yet a  celebrity is just a well-known person, someone puffed by PR people,  not necessarily someone with wisdom to share. A mentor is someone who is ready to guide a younger person through life's rough paths.

Be yourself is not advice for the masses. I look at photos in the daily newspaper of persons who have been newly hired, promoted,  or given awards. There are these rows of mug shots, one after another.   Sometimes, without exception, they all seem to look alike,  especially the women:  same arched eyebrows, same eye makeup, same hairstyle, same hair color,  and sometimes same smile – mostly lots of teeth and little genuine joy. 

When I started writing and speaking, I was looking for models, not mentors.   I began speaking publicly at a time when women in the church were expected to keep silent, so models were few and mentors even rarer.  I tried to copy men, only that was a problem.  A woman trying to sound like a man has a tough battle, lacking the voice and the stature. I couldn’t roar.  I wasn’t about to pound the pulpit.  I wasn’t about to sit back on my chair on the platform with one ankle resting on the other knee like a man, so I had to learn to do it my way.  

I found mentors in older women, not those who had been writers and speakers, but who were wise in living.  For years I looked for an older woman in my community to spend time with, first through circumstances of living close to one such woman and then deliberately.

The first was Hannah Willems who lived across the tracks from us. She was a great encourager.  Then there were Viola Wiebe, former missionary to India,   and Esther Ebel, former dean of women at Tabor College. Each had persisted and excelled in areas without women models.  They intuitively understood my longings and hopes and said, “Katie, you can do it.”  

They had lived in a different era and sometimes a different country, but they understood that women of any era should be given opportunity to use their gifts. I always returned from a visit with one of them ready to pick up my own aspirations once again. 

So what advice would I pass on?  Probably these two cherished items that were passed on to me:  Life isn’t fair but make it fair for others.  Be true to yourself. To achieve that goal find a mentor.  Models won’t always measure up.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

We oldsters are in our own Olympics

I enjoy watching the Olympic trials – the precision, speed, agility, flexibility, endurance, and much more.  At the end of each competition the gold medal winner as well as two runners-up are honored  with the backdrop of the country’s national anthem The rest are losers.

Losers?  Well, hardly.  They also trained, strained, practiced, endured, journeyed to London, yet sometimes “lost” by a small fraction of a second. Still  they are the so-called “losers.”

I think we need to honor  losers  more. They aren’t real losers in any sense of the word.

We live in a win/lose culture. It’s either/or.  If a coach doesn’t produce a winning team, he or she is soon sidelined as the powers-that-be search for someone who will produce winners.   The same happens to players. Similarly, in  the entertainment, business or academic world it is important to stay on top.  Politics is all about winning.

We are encouraged to stay on top, if not by brains, then by luck.  Some people regularly buy lottery tickets when they get gas or groceries; it’s part of their budget.  Others faithfully enter mail sweepstakes, rationalizing that the only investment is the cost of a stamp. And who knows, they might win a few million dollars and live a life of ease forever after. And forever after they will be considered a “winner.”

The other day in conversation friends implied I was a loser. Almost. As I left the church service, someone asked me, “Did you drive yourself to church?”  The implication was that people my age didn’t drive. Earlier, during coffee time, someone asked if I was still writing.  Again, the  implication was that as a member of the older generation I was probably losing my faculties. 

And I am, in some respects. I have diminishing eyesight. I have to admit it. I sometimes request people to repeat themselves, especially those people accustomed to doing business over the telephone mumbling the same words over and over again.  Names of people I know very well suddenly  slip into the black hole of forgetfulness to pop up about ten minutes later when I don’t need them.

Wrinkles are showing up in surprising places. Beauty is equated with young people with smooth skin, supple limbs, and a full head of hair. By implication the old are ugly and not as easy to look at. Old then becomes a four-letter word.

Physically, my strength is declining.   I said good-bye to agility a long time ago. Gold winner swimmer Michael Phelps at 27 sees himself as possibly declining in physical prowess.  Reporters are making a big deal about  one female gymnast who is about 40. Olympic winners don't include those my age. 

I lose friends more often because of death. 

We of my generation may be losing in some respects, but we are winners in other areas.  We are winners when it comes to experience and wisdom. We are winners in knowing what life is all about. We know much about dealing with loss and suffering, about hurt and forgiveness, about betrayal and faithfulness. We are winners in knowing that we can have faith without certitude or even clarity in every area.

Like the athletes we have gotten up before dawn many a morning to tend to a child’s need for comfort. We  have stayed up late, very late, waiting for a child to come home. We have trained, strained, endured, fallen, picked ourselves up and moved on.  
Yet these actions are not the ones awarded  gold medals.   Nor do we expect one.  All we want is to not be relegated  to the sidelines before we get there. That comes soon enough.  The "old" winner is the one who chooses to live until the end. Encourage us to do that.