Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Terrible Gaussian Curve

One of my Harvard Medical School classmates just notified us on our class listserve that one of our classmates, John Gunderson, has died. John transferred in from Dartmouth in our third year, so I hardly knew him, but it turns out that this was very much my loss. Here is his obit in the NYT – he was a real star:

Another of our classmates, Anna Kadish, responded that “as time passes we will unfortunately be seeing more of these.” Indeed we will. We are all about 77 years old; we are an age cohort.

I hate the fucking Gaussian Curve – also known as the Bell Curve. The left arm of the curve has the early demisers – I still miss poor Paul Schnitker, that nervous and intense thin blond smoker from Yale, very much at the heart of our class because he came early and stayed late to our long, large dining room tables at Vanderbilt Hall where most of us lived the first two years. He graduated, did an internship, joined CDC, and almost immediately was killed in a plane crash in the field, I think Nigeria. Classmate Al Hurwitz called to tell me and I just didn't know what to say or do, my emotions were not available to me. I still haven't cried for Paul, which is maybe why I still feel it so acutely. I'd say we all do. Intense and sensitive and endearing Paul was well and truly loved. He was about #1 on the left arm of the curve.

Harris Funkenstein, the sensitive son of the psychiatrist who did most of the interviewing for applicants and was known to ask interviewees to open a window he had nailed shut, drowned in Florida, also on the left arm of the curve. As the curve rose gradually, others died. Mike Lisanti, my 3rd year roommate. Rich Schulman, our class president, an intense cardiologist from nearby Swampscott, Mass, who moved to Rhode Island. Others, too. The left arm is rising. The highest rate if dying hasn't been hit yet.

I hate that fucking curve. It is inexorable. I imagine I'll accept my own death pretty well, I guess, but I sure resent my friends and classmates dying. Nobody gets out of this alive; pisses me off. Equanimity eludes me. I can't take solace in the odds that we have all already surmounted – after all, how many sperm were fighting for that singular ovum when ours was the only one who won? Pretty soon we'll be dropping like flies in the middle of the curve. So many people to be missed. And if we are not among them, if we come out on the descending right arm of the curve, well, it's just a question of years. The end is completely predictable for these lives which have themselves been so unpredictable.

I wrote a poem a year or two ago. It's a short poem:

We live in the memories of our friends and loved ones,
And then not even that.

I hate that curve.

Budd Shenkin