Dr. Jeff Kane: The stick
Walter, a retired art teacher with stage four prostate cancer, attended our patient support meetings. He was often in pain. When asked how he was doing, he’d say, smilingly, “Well, I have good days and I have better days.”
One afternoon he arrived with a long, narrow package. Inside was a sturdy hardwood branch he’d whittled into a walking stick. He’d sculpted one end into a bald head which looked a lot like his, presumably reflecting a common side effect of chemo treatment.
“This,” Walter explained, “is a talking stick. I’ve wrapped it with three colors of leather strips, as you can see: red for the anger many of us feel, black for the unknown, and white for hope.” He’d also added a mane of colorful strings along its length. It was the kind of ritual object used by groups around the world: whoever holds it holds the floor without interruption. And that’s how we used it from that day forward.
Here’s how I think it works. Too often, we listen to others with half an ear, awaiting any opportunity to respond. If we’re not allowed to interrupt, though, we might as well listen fully. Group members commonly reported that being thoroughly heard by people who are in similar situations was a tangibly healing experience.
An inevitable feature of cancer support groups is that members sometimes die. When they did, we memorialized them by tying into the strings a memento of their uniqueness — a charm or jewel. The stick slowly grew a cascade of hearts, tiny dolls, flags, even a silver bicycle, and for Walter, a tiny brass paintbrush.
After Walter died, a veteran member would explain the stick to new attendees. Its gravity compelled reverence, and often people would turn it in their hands, hear the baubles tinkle, and marvel at its poignant history before they spoke. One person said, “If this stick could talk…”
I’m retired, but the stick is still in use after twenty years, and more highly regarded — and heavier — than ever. It’s the kind of folk treasure that deserves to wind up in the Smithsonian Institution. My fantasy is that it’s a spiritual antenna that receives and transmits the feelings, stories, and hopes of the hundreds who have used it. Holding it, one can’t help but speak from the heart.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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