The Quiet Man

500x500px Dr. Leon Hamrick image from Urology Centers of Alabama PC

My brother Bud was always quiet—so low key that my mother became concerned about his three-word vocabulary at the age of one: “Mama,” “bye,” and “milk.” A botany and psychology major, she keenly observed the development of living things, whether plants or people. His bright blue eyes set deeply in his chubby face. Sometimes heavily lidded—as if he were about to fall into a nap—they studied the world in a laid-back fashion.

In contrast, my sister Martha, born three years earlier, was quick, with hazel eyes and an adventurous spirit. Mom concluded that outgoing Martha did the talking for both, thus quelling her concern about Bud’s development. However, as he approached 18 months, still with very little to say, Mom considered a battery of tests to discover what was passing through his mind.

One fine day before Mom could set an appointment, Bud—pulled up to the breakfast table in his high chair—rolled out several alphabet letters: “C-e-e-e.” Pause. “H (A-a-a-a-chuh).” Pause. “E-e-e-e.” He took a break to shovel some cereal into his mouth. “E-e-e-e.” Pause. “R-r-r-r.” “I-i-i-i.” “O-o-o-o.” “E-s-s-s.” God bless that Southern boy: He didn’t clip a vowel or a consonant.

Mom grabbed the cereal box and randomly pointed out letters, which Bud cooperatively identified between mouthfuls.

Part of the evening bath-and-bed ritual with young children included story time. My mother read from children’s classics, with Bud and Martha leaning in on either side. Mom said Martha swiftly pointed at pictures and asked questions while Bud settled back comfortably, his eyes half-hooded.

By the age of two, Bud was reading. How much? Nobody knew. He independently picked up the connection between characters on a page and spoken language.

He still talked sparingly. When my grandparents visited, Bud spent hours with Pop (Mom’s father), poring over bird books and then identifying real ones hopping and flying about the yard.

Great Aunt Nell once engaged Bud in a bird conversation as they gazed out a window. “See, Bud! Do you see the pretty red birds? Aren’t those red birds as pretty as they can be?” She eagerly repeated herself, hoping for a response.

Unconcerned about this condescension, Bud turned to Aunt Nell and politely drawled, “Some people call them red birds. Other people call them cardinals.” Then he kept his silence.

Aunt Nell later confided the story to Mom, saying: “I never felt so inadequate in my life.”

Two years later, Martha stormed home from school, frustrated about an assignment. The teacher had assigned science reports on animals. Martha’s draw? A walking fish. “There isn’t such a thing. This is a trick.”

Bud slipped away from the furor, walked over to the set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and pulled the “F” volume off the shelf. He flipped to the “fish” section. “There you are.” His forefinger placidly tapped an image on the page. “See, there’s a walking fish.”

Then my mother figured out how much Bud had read. A short conversation confirmed that he had plowed methodically through every volume, A to Z, page by page—without skipping a paragraph.

A few times my mother laughingly recalled some of her favorite images of Martha and Bud playing touch football with my father. Martha, fleet of foot, loved going out for long passes or racing for a touchdown. She was fearless in any rough-and-tumble match. I think she broke at least one finger and her collarbone with nary a whimper when the neighborhood kids played. But where was Bud? He often wandered off “the field,” actually a short stretch of zoysia grass in an otherwise heavily wooded backyard. “Your brother tended to get grubby, digging in the dirt, poking under rocks, or watching a line of ants carry their food burdens,” Mom said. “He never interfered; he just watched.”

Bud grew up to a become compassionate physician who carefully poses questions to patients, always searching for clues. A practitioner can access miraculous technology, but the human touch and active listening are powerful tools. A few years ago, Bud asked me to draft his online professional profile. “You know the facts about me,” he said. “But focus on patients because, after all, it’s about them. Keep it in the third person.” That was his way of telling me to avoid any boastful phrasing.

The other night I watched John Ford’s The Quiet ManIt ranks near the top of my all-time favorite movies. Heavyweight boxer Sean “Trooper” Thornton, played by John Wayne, accidentally kills an opponent in the U.S. ring. Haunted by the savagery of that moment, he hangs up his gloves and flees to his birthplace in Innisfree, Ireland, in search of a fresh start. The last thing he wants to face is another fight.

After watching the movie and then pondering my brother’s serene way of being, I considered the state of our often combative culture. Why is it so important to have the last word or get in the last dig at an opponent? Why does “getting credit” for something count more than service quietly rendered? Why do the words “fight” and “hit back” frequently repeat as a point of pride, even in the halls of our highest institutions? What does that teach?

I talk with my brother several times a week. Often it is at night, and he is making rounds. Several weeks ago, we touched base close to midnight,

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m sitting with a patient.”

“Oh, he must be special because you are there so late.”

“No, actually, he’s a stranger. I am covering for one of my colleagues who is out of town. This patient needs someone to look out for him right now. He is alone.”

A few days ago, my brother’s great heart took a beating. Now he lies in a hospital bed, tended by his family and colleagues. He is the father of four sons, now young men who display talent, wit, intelligence, kindness, and fierce loyalty to their parents.

I could use the cliche “fighting for his life.” But somehow any word remotely related to violence does not seem fitting for such a gentle soul. Instead, a famous line from The Quiet Man reassures: “Steady, Trooper, steady.”

The phrase suits in another way because of my brother’s love of sailing. He took up the sport at an early age and then passed on his knowledge as a camp counselor.

When I see a small craft rocking in the distance, with sails snapping, or feel sun, wind, or rain on my face at the beach, I marvel at the vastness of sky and water. And then I wonder at my brother’s deep blue eyes and purposeful hands that have safely steered others through many stormy journeys. “Steady, Trooper, steady.”

Hark, now hear the sailors cry,
Smell the sea and feel the sky,
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.

And when that foghorn blows,
I will be coming home,
And when the foghorn blows,
I want to hear it.

—Van Morrison

Photo credit: Urology Centers of Alabama

29 Comments

  1. Dan Hise

    To paraphrase a favorite song, “You know just where your brother keeps his better side.” I hope that he recovers, especially so that he is able to read what you wrote about him. Any of us would be extremely lucky to have someone as talented and as emotionally connected as you to paint our verbal portrait.

  2. Suzanne

    This is a beautifully written memoir Catherine. We are praying for God’s healing touch for Bud. Though we don’t know him well, your tribute makes us wish we did. Quite a special man. God bless!

  3. Writer Lori

    Ahhh, Catherine, hard to hit ‘like’ on this piece, for though it is poignantly (and exquisitely) written, the thought of your beloved brother in peril brings a lump to my throat. My brother is also a physician, and likewise deeply cherished, and the thought of him in peril brings me to my knees. I am sending healing thoughts to your brother and his family and gentle words of support to you….

  4. Elizabeth

    A beautiful post, Catherine. I love reading your family stories. Thank you for sharing your family with us. I pray for your brother and his family.

  5. Charlotte Foster Coggin

    Our family loves Leon Hamrick. We were at MBHS with Martha. We will certainly be fervently praying for him and all the family. What a beautiful story about a gentle giant of a man. He walked through some difficult days with our dad and family. Not surprised he was sitting with a stranger. He has such a sensitive heart! On one of my Dad’s appointments, Dr. Hamrick realized Dad was in distress. He put him in a wheelchair and walked us to a hospital room where he worked vigorously to give him some relief. That is the Leon Hamrick, dedicated urologist, our family has known for too many years to count! Love and prayers to all the Hamricks.

  6. Johnnny Davis

    So beautiful and you truly capture the essence of Bud whom I was lucky enough to have as a childhood friend and roommate. May Gods blessings be on the entire Hamrick family at this time.

  7. Cindy Wilson

    Beautiful and poignant, Catherine. I now feel like I know him a little bit. What a lovely tribute. Prayers for all of you, my friend.

    1. Catherine Hamrick

      Thanks, Cindy. We appreciate physicians everywhere and all the hard work you do. In all this talk about healthcare, it’s interesting to note that our healthcare workers do not get a lengthy “recess.” They just keep working hard, taking care of the people who need their expertise and compassion. Thanks for all you do. And that applies to doctors, nurses, PAs, orderlies, assistants, office workers, librarians, record keepers, researchers . . . all who do what they can in the effort to heal others or ease their suffering.

    1. Catherine Hamrick

      Thank you, William, for your kind words and prayers. Our family has received an outpouring of support, love, and prayers. Bud’s children are phenomenal. Every note like yours contributes to the healing process. Kind regards, Catherine

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