The layers of human connection are so much deeper than we realize. Do you ever think about the unintended consequences of your simplest actions?
I, Martha Boone, the author of The Big Free, have been writing stories since I was 7 years old. I wrote many fictionalized and unedited stories about my time at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Most of my characters are amalgams of several types of people that I experienced in many hospital settings over 30 years.
One of my mentors, Dr. Norman McSwain, showed interest in my stories and became a featured character. Over 20 years, he occasionally sat in his study in his French Quarter home and read the stories of his old student.
He apparently piled my stories in his study and sometimes emailed me with corrections, comments or encouragement. He was one of many wonderful mentors I enjoyed during my time at Tulane. We grew to be professional friends, even though he was always a “father type” figure to me.
In 2014, he began to push me to put my stories into a novel format and even agreed to have his real name used for a fictionalized character. The correspondence between Dr. McSwain and me intensified as The Big Free took form.
Dr. McSwain loved my stories, because he loved Charity Hospital and the fascinating work that comprised his life.
I came to New Orleans to have dinner with Dr. McSwain and to discuss finalizing some of the chapters in the book. Dr. McSwain was to have picked up my husband and myself outside of the Windsor Court Hotel in the early summer of 2015. The rain poured and we waited and Dr. McSwain never arrived. After an hour of calling and texting, I even had the Tulane Hospital operator try to find him. He was nowhere to be found. My husband kept trying to reassure me, “Let’s just go to Commander’s for dinner as planned and he will find us later.”
We sat at Commander’s with Dr. McSwain’s empty chair waiting for him and he never came.
I knew that something was very wrong. Dr. Norman McSwain was not a person who did not meet his commitments and he certainly was not a doctor who did not answer his calls.
Four days later, after we were back in Atlanta, my phone rang.
It was Dr. McSwain. “I am so sorry. I was a patient in the ICU and was very sick and could not call.” After his daughter allowed him to have his phone back, I was among the first he called.
He sounded very weak and Dr. McSwain had never sounded weak, to me. I was very happy to hear from him, after 4 days of worry. But, I knew he had had a serious illness and I knew he was in his 70’s. When I got off the phone, I thought Norman McSwain is not the kind of man to be a feeble old man…I wonder how much longer he has?
Unfortunately, that was the last time we ever talked.
My husband and I flew to New Orleans for the funeral of Dr. McSwain in August. I sat with hundreds of people who had been taught by him and who admired him in many arenas. His accomplishments could span an entire newspaper page. He was a “bigger than life” figure in the world of trauma surgery.
Months later, unbeknownst to me, Dr. McSwain’s daughter, Merry, began to organize his home on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans. When Merry got to his library, she sat in his “Tulane green” leather wing back chair and discovered a stack of white papers containing stories about her father and Charity hospital. Merry had lived at Charity with her father as a young person and had even worked in the medical system as a nurse. She loved her father and was delighted to relive some of his life through the stories while learning to cope with her loss.
Dr. McSwain’s daughter did not know the source of the stories. Her father had so many devoted students that it could have been anyone.
Merry began a pattern of going to Dr. McSwain’s house, relaxing in his chair, reading a story, grieving, and attempting to restore order to his home.
During this time, I was also grieving and putting together the final version of my novel, The Big Free. When it was nearly time to publish the book, I started to wonder if Dr. McSwain’s daughter would have any objection to the use of his name in the book. So, I tracked Merry McSwain down.
We were so excited to finally have contact. Merry had begun to go through her father’s computer correspondence and had learned the name of the author of “the stories.”
Merry said, “Daddy clearly wanted you to use his name and I trust his judgement and I want you to do whatever you and Daddy agreed to do.”
Merry and I met a few months later at Mr. B’s in the French Quarter in New Orleans. We laughed and cried and shared fun stories of Dr. McSwain and Charity Hospital.
Even though Charity hospital has been closed since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, we began to “heal” with the nostalgia of our Charity stories.
The synchronicity of two women, unknown to each other, coming together to positively affect each other’s mourning process is amazing.
I could have never imagined my story telling and long term friendship with a mentor could have led to helping his only child through her grief process.
Fortunately, the unintended results of my actions were helpful to another.