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Public Mail Collection Boxes and the Necessity of Compassion
by KJ Hannah Greenberg




After putting in nearly fifteen years as his autistic, younger brother’s guardian, Dr. Davis Totana, a specialist in scattering theory, returned to the forefront of academia. The initial results of his comeback, though, were less than spectacular.


At the first research conference that he attended after resurfacing, Dr. Totana was harangued by a bunch of Ph.D. candidates who couldn’t see past his relative youthfulness. During breaks and meals, those students sought him, “an unknown commodity,” to bear witness to their tales of borrowed grandeur.


Those aspirants’ achievements were lived vicariously through the experiences of their chief professors. Thus, it was of no surprise that those no-names stared, mouths agape, when Davis was invited to the podium to sit next to the keynote speaker, Professor Kevin Benin. Unbeknownst to them, Benin was one of Totana’s longtime research buddies.



For the most part, society ill-treats folks on the autistic spectrum, deeming them as mentally disabled and insensitive. Whereas it is true that souls of Ray’s ilk might have trouble expressing their feelings, a disproportionate number of them have genius IQs. What’s more, autistics that grow up in safe, loving homes are measurably more empathic than are more neurologically typical folks.


Ray was one of those remarkable people. He effortlessly attended to Davis’ feelings, knowing, without Davis having to articulate whether or not his students passed their doctoral exams, whether or not he succeeded in catching the direct bus to campus, and whether or not he liked the dinners he cooked for both of them. In fact, Ray’s profound ability to understand Davis made the growth of Ray’s abnormal cells that much more heart-rending.


Ray ought to have survived. Stomach cancer has a progression-free survival rate of 57%. There were only crummy reasons why Ray had succumbed.


For a while, Davis blamed himself. It had been easier for him to supply Ray with hotdogs and cold cuts than to grill chicken or to bake fish, principally on days when Davis was spending long hours hacking at equations, grading papers, or hunting for ways to substantiate his theories. Plus, Davis, who had a bachelor’s inclinations, was better at stocking their kitchen with chips and pretzels than with apples and papayas.


It was only after Ray had begun to experience unexpected, persistent nausea and to lose weight that Davis took notice. One thing led to another. Soon, Davis found himself holding Ray’s hand as Ray was being sedated for an endoscopy. Davis explained the procedure as Ray swallowing, temporarily, a tiny camera. Ray liked that explanation as he fancied himself an up-and-coming film director.


That test went less than well. The CT machine was large and loud. Davis was prohibited from accompanying Ray to the area housing that terrifying chamber. Although multi-slice helical CT is a boon for imaging staff, it is an irritant, at best, for average patients. Exceptional patients, though, also loathe that machine and need more consideration and compassion than many hospital workers are trained to provide.


When Davis, who was sitting in the Imaging Department’s waiting room, saw two hospital guards and one orderly rush into the CT room, he ran after them. One of Ray’s attending technicians had a bloody nose.  The other was massaging his jaw. Ray, himself, was balled up in a corner of the room, shaking and crying. A quick thinking nurse squatted near him and began to sing to him. She sung lullabies she used for her children. A few minutes later, Ray was able to be lifted back onto the CT table.


He nonetheless continued to be bothered by the clank of the machine’s cooling system. Davis noted that the replacement technicians wore ear covers, but had neglected to offer those noise modulators to Ray, to him, or to the guard newly stationed in the room. From that point until the time of Ray’s death, Davis made it his mission to learn about patient rights.


Following the scan, Ray became ill with contrast-induced nephropathy. The dye that had been used to illuminate Ray’s innards had caused the problem. None of Ray’s doctors had checked his creatinine level before ordering his scan. By the time that anyone thought to run kidney function tests, Ray was dead.



During his address, Dr. Totana’s friend, Dr. Benin, droned on about his ideas for computational modeling of the EGF-receptor system. Professor Benin possessed an international reputation for his prowess with proteomics mapping techniques, specifically, and for his contributions to systems biology, in general.


After the program, over hamburgers, Kevin Benin hugged Davis and praised his commitment to his brother’s care. Neither Benin nor anyone else knew that Ray’s death was why Dr. Davis Totana had returned to the path of academic prominence. Dr. Totana had assumed that his fellow mathematicians couldn’t cope with that news.


Regardless, the friendship between Benin and Totana - which had roots in their shared, undergraduate, biochemistry and electrical engineering courses -  thrived. At most meetings, they shared at least one meal as well as professional and personal anecdotes.


Benin and Totana’s class was the first to graduate from Oakland with a multidisciplinary baccalaureate in biological engineering. Thereafter, Kevin Benin had pursued a doctorate in Integrated Life Sciences at Harvard, while Davis Totana had accepted research assistance from Princeton’s Department of Mathematics and Physics. Outside of conferences, the two kept in touch through email.


At some point, Kevin got married and fathered two children. Davis, though, struggled to acclimate Ray to New Jersey. Davis considered Mercer County’s adult day care facility to be outstanding, but Ray protested, daily, about their having had to leave Michigan. To Ray, familiarity was soothing.



At an early debriefing with Ray’s primary doctor, Davis was told that Ray had Stage III adenocarcinoma of the stomach, i.e. that malignant cells had grown through all of the layers of Davis’ brother’s abdomen and had spread to his pancreaticolenal lymphatic nodes. Ray’s doctor recommended a total gastrectomy as well as the removal of Ray’s impacted nodes. In the least, the complex procedures would make Ray more comfortable. At best, they might eliminate his cancer. Considerations of radiation or of chemotherapy would have to wait until after the surgeries.


A member of the hospital’s palliative care staff visited Ray’s hospital room. She interviewed Ray and Davis, but offered them little new information. Before calling on the next patient on her clipboard’s list, she handed Davis a pamphlet about the hospital’s support group for people with abdominal surgeries. He tossed it-Ray could not understand enough sophisticated concepts to benefit from such a group and having to interact with lots of people in a confined space would only trigger many of his anxieties.


Davis, however, did understand what was going to happen. He wished his brother would die on the operating table as an alternative to having to endure so many invasive procedures.


He was unfazed when, after Ray’s anesthesia wore off, Ray had to be restrained so as not to pull out his nasogastric tube and his catheter. Mr. Lollipops, Ray’s stuffed unicorn, provided little cheer. As Davis had expected, Ray was not only in a lot of pain, but was also crazy with fear.


Davis spilled tears, but said nothing to his lone sibling of how Ray’s third tube, the one in his arm, was in place of the hamburgers and French fries that had contributed to his dreadful disease. Ironically, if Ray survived the hospital, given his missing plumbing, those “bad” foods, not the “good,” high fiber ones he should have been eating, would constitute the bulk of his diet. As it were, before being discharged, Ray suffered internal bleeding. His new intestinal seal was horrifically leaky. Ray died.


Davis neither sued the hospital nor Ray’s doctors, given the details of the plea bargain arranged by his lawyer. Simply, when Ray had gone into cardiopulmonary arrest and an intern, along with an orderly, had made comments about Ray not being worthy of resuscitating, five foot two, one hundred and sixty pound Dr. Davis Totana had beat up both of them. After settling out of court, Davis took an extended leave from his university. He, anyway, continued to engage in his research.



Kevin and Davis met at succeeding scholarly assemblies. The further out Davis was from Ray’s death, the more that he appeared at national and international academic meetings. To his dismay, his life grew richer in career accolades, and in hangers-on, the latter of which included some of those unbearable wannabes from the conference where Davis had initially reemerged.


All the same, Kevin continued to encourage him to break out of his solitude, and, explicitly, to find a wife. Dr. Benin had no idea that outside of his office, his laboratory, and the multitude of academic meetups where he gave over his findings, Dr. Totana avoided community.


In part, it was the case that Dr. Totana lacked rudimentary relationship skills. For decades, he had either been leading expeditions through higher mathematics or tending to his brother’s needs, but not much else. Sure, he sipped rum in his university’s faculty commons, and, sure, subsequent to Ray’s death, he had mountaineered on foreign cliffs, but otherwise he rarely participated in “extracurricular” activities.


To a certain extent, it was the case that Dr. Davis Totana had a dearth of emotional availability. Having failed to process his grief over his brother and over others of his major losses, it was all that he could do to be cordial with his colleagues at school and at congresses, or to write friendly messages on mathematics listservs.


Last, in some measure, it was the case that Dr. Davis Totana was a little immature. Neither his framework for studying and understanding the scattering of waves and particles nor his caring for his challenged sibling provided the kinds of experiences ordinarily conducive to romantic relationships. He liked girls. Some of his colleagues were female. Yet, Davis was dumbfounded when it came to inviting a woman out for coffee.



Time passed. During a recess of a University of Chicago-sponsored seminar, Davis left the venue; he found his peers’ pipe smoke disgusting. Walking in a random direction, he encountered, on a street corner, a decommissioned U.S. Postal relay drop box.


Fixed mail collection boxes are rare. Those still in use are usually mere chutes connected to brick and mortar post offices and are found in few neighborhoods. Decades earlier, those receptacles, which were located in most cities and towns, were fastened to lamp-posts, to telegraph poles, and to buildings. They evolved into heavy, vandal-proof, four-legged, free-standing repositories. At present, as most folks use email, such containers are relics.


The olive green albatross that Davis stumbled upon boasted reinforced welding and riveted joints. It had a locked hasp on its door and a curved dome. Davis hugged it. He cried. He cried the majority of tears that he had held back in Ray’s hospital room, at Ray’s funeral, and during the two plus years when Davis climbed heights in Europe and Africa. He cried his missing father and his dead mother. He cried his lack of a wife and his lack of children. He cried his fear at meeting people.


That forgotten mailbox had called to mind the mornings when Davis had dropped Ray off at day care. Every single time, Ray had begged his brother not to leave him behind. Every single time, Davis had kissed his brother and then made his way to the university where he was a student and then a professor.


When he could cry no more, Davis pulled himself along the street. He entered a nondescript bar, where, just inside of its door, a fellow had taken it upon himself to use three seats. That man had placed, respectively, his hat, his coat, and himself, all of which were wet, on separate stools.


Davis, who had not noticed the rain, smiled at the fellow’s thoughtlessness. A few drinks later, he was talking to that consolingly imperfect stranger, telling him about his dead brother and about how, when he was ten and Ray was eight, they had sat in their grandmother’s kitchen, where pots of brown rice and of blackberry jam had simmered on the stove. Davis had accidentally knocked into that cooktop in a way that had made those pots tip over their burning contents onto Ray. Until that moment in the bar, only Davis’ mother had known how Ray had been burned.


In answer to Davis’ disclosure, the stranger pulled his hat off of one of the stools and laid it on top of his coat. He motioned for Davis to take that newly empty seat. Davis sat on its still sodden surface. The stranger hugged him. Davis dropped his head onto the bar and cried some more.


Dr. Totana hadn’t thought that he had any more tears. He shared with his new benefactor how, until the time that Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he resented being a caretaker. Even though he had already lost his mother and having never known his father, Davis hadn’t appreciated Ray’s preciousness to him. Like the public mail collection box, Ray, too, would never be revitalized.


The bartender, who stood quietly behind the counter, refused to serve Davis any more alcohol, but poured him, gratis, cup after cup of tea. When the bartender took a bathroom break, the man with the hat and coat poured a little of his own Scotch into Davis’ teacup. Davis tilted back and drank. The liquor burned. Davis’ wails muted into a soft whimper.


The man with the hat and coat then gave over his story.



The man was a doctor employed by The University of Chicago, who had, just that day, been told by his department’s tenure review board that he would not be having his contract renewed. For ten hours, he had been alternating between sitting at the bar and taking furious walks around the block. The rain had brought him back inside.


“Dr. Hat and Coat” harped at Davis that both of them ought to have known better that anxieties can be converted to mental vigor. On cocktail napkins, he sketched diagrams about how to transform worries into intellectual proclivity.


Davis had thought that he had been disclosing his grief to a sympathetic listener, not a stranger who sat in judgment. Defensively, he asked Hat and Coat about his success with those prescriptions.


Hat and Coat gave answers worthy of a politician and then put his own head on the bar.


Davis, in turn, poured some of the tea from his most recent refill into his new acquaintance’s glass.


Hat and Coat sipped the stuff, slowly, and then continued. He lamented that it would have been easier for him to succeed professionally if his life’s mission had been helping medical students learn diagnoses. It was now a disaster that he had focused, instead, on pushing the boundaries on treatments with low profit margins. It didn’t pay, literally or figuratively, to care about mankind. If the healthcare field would have been truly altruistic, he would have received tenure and promotion.


Worse, he had no idea how he would inform his wealthy family, those dear ones who had scoffed at him for spending long years training to be a physician. They never understood why he wanted to be a doctor, let alone why he wanted to research and to teach medical students rather than to make lots of money in private practice.


Once the bar closed for the night, Davis returned to his hotel. Hat and Coat, that is, Dr. Ivan Flinders, pediatric oncologist, hailed a taxi home.


Davis reread the card that Ivan Flinders had given him and then Googled the man. His new friend was a millionaire. It almost made sense that he had asked Davis to meet him, in the morning, on Merrill C. Meigs’ mothballed runway.



Ivan, a pilot, and a private helicopter waited for Davis on that airstrip. Davis asked no questions about how Ivan Flinders had secured permission for a rotocraft to land and to take off there. Similarly, Ivan asked Davis nothing of how he had gotten past the barriers leading to the abandoned airfield.


In silence, they flew to South Bend, from where they took a commercial flight to Washington D.C. Still exhausted from crying, Davis spent the entirety of the flight sleeping in his cushy first class seat. Ivan allowed himself to be preoccupied with his smart phone. His family was very alarmed with the goings on in his life.


At Ronald Reagan National, Ivan had their bags shuttled to an expensive hotel. He ordered a cab and told Davis they were going elsewhere. Until they arrived at the National Postal Museum, Davis looked out of his window and frequently sighed. There was no Ray to return home to and his classroom responsibilities wouldn’t begin until the new semester. His research could wait.


Expectedly, among all of the museum’s interesting artifacts, especially its exhibits on the Antarctic post office, on the history of mail bags, and on pneumatic mail, it was the Bonbobi mailbox that called to Davis. The Southern Oaks Community of Santa Clarita had realized that their curbside mailboxes were not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, after searching for a mailbox type whose proportions would allow a wheelchair to pass on the sidewalk, they ordered the Bonbobi.


Davis began crying anew. Ivan gently ushered him out of the museum. Ivan had had no idea what might catalyze further release for his new friend, but had suspected that the museum might provide an answer. He had failed as a humanitarian in holding his place within an important university and medical center, but he could still and intended to always provide solace on an individual level.



Ivan never returned to academia. His brothers made a place for him in the family business. He renewed his license until his old age and kept limited clinic hours, reserving most of that time for citizens lacking health insurance. He remained untenured among his peers, but became a hero to the masses.


Kevin Benin’s children grew up and had children of their own.  In due course, Kevin and his wife, Mary, retired to the city where their youngest daughter lived. Other mathematicians took over Kevin’s line of research.


Davis continued on at Princeton. He dated many comely, intelligent, and good-natured professors, but married none of them. Whenever possible, he urged the increasing number of people with whom he interacted to think twice before disparaging individuals because of apparent differences. Dr. Davis Totana dedicated his final book to Drs. Kevin Benin and Ivan Flinders.




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