East Texas Cardiologist/Naturalist Stirs the Campfire
By Mark S. McDonald
Perhaps you have met an acquaintance of mine, cardiologist Dr. Robert F. McFarlane. If not, you need to; your life will be richer for the experience.
I hope you will keep reading, but not to be amused. Instead, you might be enlightened, as I was, and for sure, you will be poked and prodded into thought.
Before you launch into this, know that Dr. McFarlane is an East Texas mossback who emerged from his hometown of Palestine, making it from the cotton patch turn-rows to med school at Harvard. There, he graduated Magna Cum Laude, during an era when a dentist in the Pineywoods could starve to death.
But McFarlane, everybody knew, was different when he left, and even more so when he came back.
Returning from Boston to the red dirt, Dr. McFarlane opened his practice in 1984, working on local tickers while frequently giving local power brokers a case of saddle chap. He seemed to relish one as much of the other, which is good because east of I-35, hide-bound rednecks are seldom in short supply.
He practices cardiology and pissing-off with equal glee and gusto. He does this by speaking truth to power but also by treating the unwashed who cannot afford his expert care. In East Texas, not so far removed from the old South, this is greeted with a mighty harrumph from elitists.
Over time, Dr. McFarlane has since built a surgical reputation known far and wide. His hidey-hole in the woods is another matter. Without specific road directions, it’s not easy finding this collection of trees and ponds and meadows where deer and ducks and all things wild call home. Migrating woodies are more welcome than uninvited humanoids.
Once, some years ago, I was fortunate to be beckoned. Joined two other Texas outdoor writers, we discovered Dr. McFarlane to be just as we thought — and nothing as we expected.
I found him to be a thinking man, the only man in Tennessee Colony, Texas to wear a bow tie to work, a bearded fellow with khaki britches stuffed in his boots, a man with a firm, long-fingered handshake, a Hemingway-esque figure who knows his way around an off-road 4×4. Dr. McFarlane, poet and naturalist, is gets lost in the woods, on purpose.
After dark, he is a grand story-teller and, like most yarn-spinners, an intent listener who relishes a good story, well-told. At his guest lodge, formalities are checked at the door. The man friends call “Bob” requires only that you earn your invitation.
This is best done by amusing him, by telling him something he does not already know, and by bragging on his cooking. Only the last part came easy.
His skillet-seared steak, prepared with a flourish of flaming sherry in a cast-iron frying pan, served late, and long after the finest single-barrel sour mash, was a first-ballot selection to my taste buds Hall of Fame.
With the man for a backdrop, I submit for your reading pleasure … Dr. Robert F. McFarlane:
AS SHE STOOD DYING – a doctor’s reminiscence: “He didn’t pay any attention to what I said about my legs. He just kept talking, asking about my heart and my breathing. Well, if you can’t even walk anywhere, what’s the point?”
In retrospect, I have to agree, although, at the time, I was focused on what I believed to be the more important matters of the heart.
When we first met, this little country woman had terrible, almost impossible to control high blood pressure, partially a result of a can to can’t work life on the farm, not having been born wealthy, a condition to which she didn’t even aspire; now her poor old wore-out blue-collar pump required no medicines for such control – barely able to generate enough blood flow to allow her to hold her head up or work her tiny gnarled fingers, much less power her legs.
Nonetheless, filled with that volatile admixture of remorse and repose, resplendent, still gleaming though not as bright as in sunnier days, replete now more with memories than vision, garlanded by still extant white bangs, mnemonic of a long ago coquette, during her last visit to my office her blue eyes pierced to the quick.
Because in that mythical distant time where our most cherished memories reside, styling in feminine cowboy boots, in a riot of black heels clicking, erect elbows careening, little female knees flashing as the joyous cowboy on her arm held on for dear life, her strong legs perfectly syncopated to the thumping beat of the feral music as her skirt helicoptered around her as though her energy was limitless and time could never slow her step, an illusion that must be so as perfect youth can only be if it is endless. Evidently, Keats understood this as he wrote about the forever youthful figures, affixed to his old Greek bowl, who evidently also had just finished square dancing: “For ever warm and still to be enjoyed, For ever panting, and for ever young.”
In that circumstance, the infancy of desire, the heart, in reality a simple thing, is heard from only as a figurative organ, the literal one usually not raising its head until unveiled by the infirmities of old age. Now, looking back as a cardiologist involuntarily educated by the carnage of relentless time, the question constantly poses: which is the worse to be injured or broken?
In her simple country home, her static death bed did not become her, serving not as a place of rest, seeming instead one of fixation, only as a gathering point for her extended loving family, allowing them to hover round in not motion, their still unwilling faces frozen in anguish, riven with not yet tears, unable to face the obvious.
In my case, in the sad stunted attitude of farewell forever, relegated in finality to being only a passive observer, I stooped over her bed, looking down at her now agonized breath and failing heart, and then, shuffling to the dark corner of the room, withdrew into my own private grieving space, thinking of what a feisty character she had been, her numinous smile and bright eyes and all the banter and jokes that had flowed between us in countless office visits over twenty-five years, but mostly of what a tragedy it was that her legs were already dead.
In a perversion of that famous Socratic dictum, most doctors believe that an unexamined death is one not worth having; thus, here, in that apparently pointless hopeless moment at the ebb of her time, no longer extendable by the pitiful futility of medical gestures, looking back at the panorama of her long life and my intersection with it, I finally slowly grasped that, in my line of work, the most profound wisdom manifests not from the arrogance of empathy, but, rather, the humility of understanding.
And so I quit her place and went home and sat alone in the still dusk on my back porch, pondering and waiting.