Graduation Speech -- Abraham Verghese
4 June, 2001
Distinguished faculty and guests,
Graduates of the class of 2001;
I am honored to be here. To those of you graduating today, what a wonderful day this is for you. Thank you for making it a very special day for me, one that I am sure I will never forget.
I must confess as I visited your magnificent campus, peeked into your classrooms and hallways, I found myself envious of the kind of education you have had here and the rich tradition that you are a part of. It is the kind of education I never had, and it is the kind of education I would wish for my children.
Much of my education and many of my most valuable lessons came from my patients, in particular the experience of taking care of people with HIV in a small town in Tennessee. The city I wound up in after my many meanderings in Asia and Africa, was Johnson City, Tennessee, population 50,000. It was the setting for my first book, My Own Country, the title reflecting both my search for a place to call home, and also reflecting the search of my patients, young men with AIDS in rural Tennessee, who because of their sexuality were even more alien in that town than I would ever be.
There was an important lesson I learned there from my patients, one that I would like to share with you in the brief time we have. It has to do with the meaning of life question. When a young man (and most of my experience was with young men) in the prime of his life finds out that he has HIV, the thought of death becomes a dominant issue. It is as though you have been swept off the footpath of life and placed into a crucible in which all the reactions of life were speeded up and there is only so much enzyme and substrate left before the reaction ends. I have had the privilege and the misfortune of peeking into these compressed lives, both in Tennessee, and later in Texas and in Iowa, and it is amazing to me how one emotion in particular comes leaping out of these compressed lives in this crucible. It is the emotion that asks, "What is the meaning of my life?" This is a question that you and I ask ourselves, but we also spend a lot of time delaying the answer to that question, thinking that meaning will come when we perhaps enter the college of our dreams, or graduate from college, or when we marry or have children, or make our first million (and indeed meaning can emerge from all these events).
But for these young men with HIV the answer could not be postponed. They had to have the answer. The gratifying thing for me in observing this is most of them found the answer. Not only that the answer was consistent. And not only that, the answer is something that we can use. Let me tell you then what the answer was: When young men at the tail ends of their lives asked themselves where did meaning reside, they found that meaning did not reside in good looks, reputation, or power, or money, instead they found that meaning resided in the successful relationships they formed over time, particularly with their parents, as well as their significant others. I can't tell you how many young men said to me, "Abraham I would not wish this disease on my worst enemy. And yet, in a funny way, this was the best thing that happened to me. But for this disease I would have spent another twenty years in the big city, gotten the call one day that my father was ill, jetted down for the funeral, spent another twenty years pursuing all the things I wished to pursue without realizing that at the tail end of my life, the thing I would value most would be this connection with my parents."
I want to close with word that fittingly are not my own, but those of the patients that you and I serve. This letter was sent to me by a woman who admired my book, her son had died of AIDS and he had arranged for her to get this letter six weeks after he died, by which time he felt she would have gotten over her acute grief. He seems to explain so much better than I have struggled to explain this business of where meaning resides. So here goes, a letter from son to mother.
This last part of my life could have been very unpleasant, but it wasn't. In fact, mother, this has been the best part of my life: a chance to get to know my family again, a chance that very few people have or take advantage of. I have had such a wonderful life that it seems almost tacky for me to express any regrets. Nevertheless, there are some things I wish I could have done. Number One. I'd like to have been mayor of Key West.... But when you get right down to it mother, I would have had to live several hundred years to reach all the goals I had. I have no regrets. I feel sorry for people who haven't had the chance in life to pursue their dreams; that, mother, is the real tragedy. Mother, if anyone ever asks you if I went to heaven, tell them this. I just came from there. No place could conceivably be as wonderful as where I spent my last 29 years. I will miss it. I will miss you, mother. I am so glad we made good use of our time to get to know each other again.
Graduates of the class of 2001, this is my charge to you: MAKE GOOD USE OF YOUR TIME.