One time I met a guy who had invented a heart valve that saved half a million people. He and I got to talking, and he had a habit of pausing to think before he answered a question, a cool habit, and I got into the habit of thinking about the people his heart valve had saved while he thought about his next answer. Moms and dads and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents and godparents and cousins and neighbors and fellow parishioners and old teammates and sorority sisters and work colleagues and every relation of ours in this lonely world. He had a seamed cheerful face with eyebrows that leapt in every direction like they had once been electrified and never fully recovered from the shock. Most every dad who had his life extended by that heart valve had a kid or kids who were probably thrilled beyond articulation that their dad didn’t die. How can you measure how happy you are that your dad didn’t die? My dad is cheerfully and wittily alive, and I try every day to articulate how glorious it is to have my dad, and I fail like hell. It’s really hard to measure love.
The inventor then answers one question so gently and thoughtfully and honestly and nakedly that I jot down every word and read it back to him twice to make sure I have every word in the right order and to his credit he doesn’t edit or massage or manipulate or soften his remark but just nods and grins. I ask him another question, and he looks out the window for a while, and this time I think about all the little kids who didn’t die because of his valve. I bet that of a half a million people, thousands were little kids, right? And some of those thousands were four-year-olds, right? And is there anything cooler and funnier and holier in this world than a four-year-old? So if you save the lives of lots of four-year-olds, doesn’t that make you a totally great heroic person? I ask him this question, and he says no, he is not great and not heroic, he is just a guy who likes to fiddle with inventions and machines and tools and things, he is a tinkering kind of guy, he actually says this, a tinkering kind of guy, and I write it down. Then I ask him something about his own childhood, and he stares out the window while he ponders the answer, and I think about my three children, who were all four years old once, three children about whom I cannot even after 20 years find any hint of a word that says much about how I love them, and then I think about some poor kid who starts to stagger and turn pale and be tired all the time, a kid who then has to go Be Examined and there are Tears and Fears and he turns out to have a Heart Problem, and it’s Quite Serious, and there will be Surgery Soon, but good thing we have a new valve that should address the problem, and for a minute there, as the inventor is looking out the window and thinking about my question about his childhood, I got the shivering willies, thinking about all the kids he saved, kids of every age. I, no kidding, started shaking, thinking of all those kids who didn’t die young. The inventor didn’t see me, I don’t think. You would think being the guy who saved half a million kids of every age would make you arrogant about how cool you were, but I tell you, shivering again now as I write this, that I never saw a hint or shred or splinter of arrogance in the late Donald Shiley. When I have dark days about arrogance and bluster and lies and pomposity, I think of him, and cheer right back up again.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.