For me, reading obituaries and death notices is a habit I’ve had my whole adult life. It helps me keep track of history – mine and others. It’s also a source of interesting stories about people, information of celebrities and the not so well-known. Through an old New York Times obituary, it fascinated me to discover Russian author Vladimir Nabokov was “a distinguished and passionate lepidopterologist. As a butterfly expert, Mr. Nabokov discovered several species and subspecies.” A lesser known obituary told the story of Eileen Nearne (1921-2010), one of 39 British women who were parachuted into France as secret agents by the Special Operations Executive, the wartime agency known as “Churchill’s secret army during World War II.”
More and more, The Detroit Free Press is including photographs of the deceased with its obituaries and death notices. Two weeks ago while gazing the Sunday notices I eyed a familiar face. I realized I remembered the face not because I knew the person well or even met him. No, it was because I recognized him from a photograph of a portrait I had seen many times in my late husband Charles’ art portfolio.
Dr. Joseph J. Weiss, M.D. MACP (1934-2015) was Charles’ rheumatologist. Dr. “Veiss” (in Charles’ voice) treated him for osteoarthritis. Charles’ gnarled fingers, aching joints and immense pain was a lasting memory of the torture he received through Czech resistance work during his Cold War arrest and imprisonment by the Russians. Charles told me it was his resistance work training that taught him how to endure pain. Physicians like Dr. Weiss helped him to “live” with it.
Charles sought out doctors who cultivated wide knowledge of the people and the world – who followed the advice of Hippocrates to pay attention to the patient, not just the disease, and to render treatments that would first do no harm. He formed lasting relationships with his doctors like Dr. Joseph J. Weiss and considered them friends. Charles even drew and painted portraits of all of his regular physicians including Dr. Weiss.
Three years ago I celebrated the posthumous publication of Charles’ memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance at a launch party in Midtown Detroit’s Park Shelton. The place was packed with the crowd spilling out the door onto the sidewalk. As I sat at a table signing books, surrounded by well-wishers, I looked up and recognized a man from a photograph of a portrait I saw in Charles’ art portfolio. It had to be Dr. Weiss! In all of the chaos, he never made it over to me, but I saw him buy a copy of Charles’ book. How sweet, I thought.
Two weeks ago, as I read Dr. Weiss’s death notice I learned even more about this kind man who “was committed to relieving his patient’s distress. He was a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School and “interrupted his training to serve in the U.S. Public Health Service which took him to many rural regions of the United States. Dr. Weiss then joined Care Medico to provide medical services in pre-Soviet Afghanistan for two years and then went to what was then South Vietnam to care for civilian casualties.” And what’s more he served my husband well!
My habit of reading obituaries and death notices like Dr. Weiss’s will not soon be broken. The fascinating details I gather help me to truly connect with people and history in ways I never thought possible.