On the Road with the CNIB Eye Van – Part 2

4/12/2017

Have you ever been truly humbled? Not in the trivial senses of being bested in a friendly card game, or having your opinions effectively challenged and wrestled into submission, or even being shamed by an unworthy adversary on the golf course. No, what I meant to ask is: Have you ever had your philosophies, moral compasses, and general sense of being put into perspective in a single fleeting moment? I have.

During that brief moment in April 2017 while visiting the small town of Iroquois Falls, time stood still, sound ceased to exist and the universe began to reveal itself to me. To others who witnessed this moment, it was nothing more than amical banter between an elderly man and a younger acquaintance. To me, it was a moment of perfect serendipity.

This occurred during a single conversation I had on the Eye Van with an 84-year-old patient named John. We had been discussing my experiences on the road so far, and the fact that I would be chronicling my travels along the way. John passionately professed that he had resided in Iroquois Falls the entirety of his eight decades, to which he could not mask his tremendous pride. 

I should note, that secondary to being a tremendous carver and artist, John also happened to be an impressive wordsmith. His ability to enrich the description and detail even the most mundane task had me captivated by something as simple as his tale about his trip to the local coffee shop that morning. I couldn’t help but inquire more about his life and story, if not only to hear the style in which he would deliver it.

As he recounted his life experiences, a common theme continued to rise to the surface; his admiration for his home town of Iroquois Falls. During his time in this town, he bared witness to the rise and fall of one of the largest paper mills in North America, the expansion and eventual decommissioning of one of the most prolific railway systems in Canada, as well as his community’s ability to rebound, rally and rebuild from changes in industry, economics and (as he put it) “other junk”.

By no means was he surprised when I recounted half a dozen stories of how his community had welcomed the CNIB Eye Van. Inspired by his zest for the community, I told him about the volunteers who had worked more than 70 hours each that week, the numerous homemade lunches we had received during our busy clinic days, as well as the effort the community had displayed to ensure that no member of their “family” was left behind. John simply smiled, and professed: “That’s how things have always been done in the falls."

I must admit that the interaction left a lasting impression on me. However, as it would happen, it paled in comparison to what inevitably transpired next.

As I finished commending his town and community for the compassion and charity they had exemplified, without giving it any more thought than any other sentence I had previously mouthed, I declared: “The volunteers here were truly indispensable!”

In that moment, something changed in my new friend’s expression. His gentle smirk turned slightly less jovial, he straightened his posture and emphatically cleared his throat. Before I had the chance to even inquire about his sudden change in demeanor, in the most calm, wise and weathered voice he began to recite (from memory):

“Sometime when you're feeling important;
Sometime when your ego's in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You're the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you think that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to your wrist,
Pull it out - and the hole that's remaining
Is a measure of how you'll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you'll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.
 
The moral of this is quaint example;
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember;
There's no indispensable man.”

You should know that John did not write this poem, nor did he claim credit for it. However, I can plead testament that I truly believe it has never been recited more beautifully or with more conviction since its inception. 

John’s words left me speechless. Time seemed to stand still. In that moment, I wasn’t even sure if he had spoken it, or if he had majestically sowed it into my mind. In that moment, I can, for the first time say, that I was truly humbled.

Before I could gather my thoughts or clear the lump in my throat, John added: “You see, Shawn, they aren’t indispensable, but rather the exact opposite. That’s what makes them so special.”

I may never see John again. As a matter of fact, as I write these words, I can’t help but wonder if he was nothing more than a figment of my imagination; a perfect culmination of the immense aura of positive energy to which I was a witness of during that faithful week in Iroquois Falls. Nonetheless, one thing is for certain; I will never forget the lesson that he and the community of Iroquois Falls have taught me. Never aspire to be indispensable; John would not approve!

Aside: The poem which John had recited is called “The Indispensable Man” and was written in 1959 by Saxon White Kessinger. A brief historical account of the poem can be found at: appleseeds.org/indispen-man_saxon.htm.

Read Part 3

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