Dr. Hanson’s office was in a converted house on Main Street, with a long ramp leading to a side door and an apartment with tenants upstairs.
He had a desk back somewhere in an office in the rear, with a couple of nurses in the front and a little waiting room and two or three examination rooms, one with a door in the wall, about chest high and maybe a foot square, where you put your urine sample.
There was a scale in the foyer, old style, that weighed about 20 pounds heavy and two inches short, and you would be led to it before being left in one of the exam rooms, usually the little one in the front, to wait for him.
Like exam rooms everywhere, there were posters on the wall, of your brain and other organs, diagrams of migraines and heart attacks and what happens to your bones when you get old. There was an examination table overspread with a sheet of white roller paper, and that little thing they look in your eyes and ears with, and the small desk next to your chair where he sat to scribble on papers or tap into a computer and look over his glasses at you as he asked how you were doing.
You knew your turn was coming as you heard his voice through the wall, leaving another patient and making his way past the nurses to the back door of your room, upon which he would knock before entering and greeting you. There was something about his voice that was recognizable at a distance, not the lisp, which danced around the edges of his speech, but the musical quality, some aspect of tone that conveyed an upbeat and joyous air. As he tilted his head down to look at you over his glasses his longish hair would fall forward just a bit and he would brush it back reflexively with his hand.
For 35 years.
At least for the 35 years that I knew him.
I was fresh out of the Army when we met, and he had just bought out the practice of the old doctor in town. Mount Morris is a blue-collar place where the census will tell you folks are disproportionately poor, old and brown. We’ve got the county nursing home and the county welfare office, a prison and a canning plant, and the best jobs are the next town over in the county seat or up the Interstate in the city, and each morning about six a long line of taillights snakes north, good folks earning their bread by the sweat of their brow.
That’s where Jeff Hanson chose to do his life’s work.
In that converted house on Main Street, and in the lives of the people all around.
He welcomed their babies, he mended their bones, he oversaw their declining years, and he held their hands as they died.
We prayed to God to keep us healthy and well, and God sent Jeff Hanson to see to it.
He doctored all nine of my children, probably saving the life of one, sending another off to specialists to save her kidney, welcoming one back a dozen years after he’d moved away to look at a worrisome mole, and giving all a sense of caring and belonging. One night, on a volunteer ambulance run, kneeling in a man’s kitchen as he lie on the floor, his heart beating its last against my fingertips at his wrist, it was Dr. Hanson who told me it was ok, that it was his time to go, and asked me to hand the phone back to the wife, so he could help and comfort her.
He had a carefree air, maybe to counterbalance my fretful nature, and we had running debates about my knees and my prostate – he worried about the one and I worried about the other. One day, having determined that I was going deaf and needed hearing aids, and coming in to his office to make the somber announcement, he pulled my ear and peered inside and shortly thereafter delivered me of an ungodly quantity of earwax. The miracle was immediate and complete.
And every year for decades we sat in the same places and picked up the same conversations, checking on health and our respective families and what we’d done since last we spoke. We both got plumper and softer and grayer and the last time I saw him we talked about retirement. I said I had no plans and he said he had no plans, and besides, the new doctors don’t know what work is, and the way he saw it the old guys were carrying the load for the young guys and he was needed – all of us old guys think that, true or not – and he was going to serve as long as he could. He loved what he was doing, he loved who he was doing it for, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
Which is why the letter so startled me.
The one that went out to everybody in the practice. Not long after we spoke. It said he was retiring. That he was going away. That the era was over.
That was two years ago.
That was when the obituary said the fight with cancer began.
It ended last Monday, with his sweetheart close at hand and his favorite music playing in the background.
And I guess it was ok. I guess it was his time to go. I guess that is what he would tell us.
But I wish I could tell him one more time how much I appreciate him. How much we all appreciate him.
How much we respect the life of service he chose to live. For almost 40 years, he was the tireless caregiver of thousands of people and hundreds of families, a constant of compassion and capability. A country doctor in a two stop-light village. He made less, he served more, he touched all, and that’s what love is.
And that’s who Jeff Hanson was.
A guy who loved us, and took care of us.