Learning by listening

I remember the light on the wall. The way it sparkled across the room in late September as it set in the west. The windows were tall, almost reaching the ceiling and there was a door that led to the small back deck and the driveway. It was the easiest way to move in and out of the Riley House which is why Tullio insisted upon living there.

Tullio Persio de Albuquerque Maranhao lived in the Riley house when I moved to St Paul, Minnesota in 1999. He was a professor of Anthropology having earned both his Masters and Ph.D. at Harvard. Originally from of Rio de Janeiro, Tullio lived in the Riley House along with my uncle Bob, cousin Evan, and our mutual neighbours, Beth, Tom and the newly arrived Jacobsons. It was a massive home divided into 6 condos and when I moved there Tullio lived in the second floor unit across from Beth. I was impressed at how the six separate neighbours lived as a mis-matched family who often gathered on the large front porch laden with large wicker chairs and a porch swing. They all took me in so quickly and seamlessly as though we were all meant to gather for that profound period leading into the fall of 2001.

Tullio spent much of his time teaching whether he was in a lecture hall or sitting with us on the porch. He was always deep in thought and curious to know and argue the opinions of others. As a young delinquent student, Tullio did not hesitate to adopt me and become my Proctor. The plan was to get me to finish my BA. I had struggled in Montreal with academics because I was lazy and had poor attendance. The academic team of my Uncle Bob (a sociologist), my cousin Evan (an anthropologist) and Tullio intended to make me succeed at a new form of learning: Distance Education. So, with great strain and study on my part I was admitted by the University of Waterloo in the winter of 2000 to complete my English Language and Literature degree. It felt like a jail sentence. There was no escaping or slacking off. I was up at 7 am every morning and studied through each and every day. I listened to my lectures through a tape cassette on a Walkman taking notes on my laptop. When I finished my first essay my Uncle Bob and Tullio asked to read it. I was so proud of myself having written a piece on Aristotle and felt I was about to impress… until the red pen came out and the first sentence until the last was shredded and crossed out.

Uncle Bob said plainly, “It’s ok, Chrissy. You’re brain is a muscle and as we get you working more on writing you will improve just like you can improve any muscle in your body through exercise.” He then handed me two books to read along with the fresh stack already waiting from the University.

“The essay and thought needs work,” said Tullio later on the front porch, “I’ve got a wonderful book about Aristotle for you to read. It will help your essay and thought process.”

There was no escape and I continued with them backing me up for the first few years until I found I was stronger in my thoughts and writing and noticed that red pen came out less and less although their books never ceased. Tullio always had something for me to read or listen to for music was also greatly important to him. He had such a different approach to academics and I excelled under his tutelage.

One day, as I was coming out of our storage room in the basement, I found Tullio struggling with a suitcase on the stairs. He had just returned from Germany where he had been teaching for a semester and I was happy to see him again.

“Chris, my back hurts I think I pulled a muscle. Will you please help me take this suitcase up the stairs?”
As I did, I noticed his pain in making the simple steps. He was such a strong and robust man. It always humoured me to see him doing his deep lunges on the pool deck of the Y in nothing but that tight little Speedo.
“You ok, Tullio?”
“No, not really. I’m going to see the Doctor and get a muscle relaxer.”

By the next morning we learned that Tullio had a tumour growing through his hip. Within two days the signs of chemotherapy were already showing their devastation and his hair began to thin, he lost weight and his skin turned grey. I found it hard to wrap my head around. I wasn’t even 30 and had never seen illness set in so fast.

“What are we going to do?” I asked my uncle and cousin at dinner.
“Tullio wants me to ask the Jacobsons to move,” Evan confessed.
“What?! We don’t even know them. They just moved in!” I was amazed.
“Well, he doesn’t want hospice or hospitals. We’re his family. He wants to stay here.”
“So, are you going to ask them?”
The silence felt heavy to three people who never shied from discussing Death and Dying over dinner.

It made sense. Tullio needed that first floor for a walker and wheelchair. He was still able to get out to the front porch and even taught his students from home as the bone cancer spread through his body. While he had a refuge of privacy, Tullio was able to make decisions based on what was best for his health. He was his strongest advocate and we did our best to meet his needs as they were unpredictable and challenging. He maintained dignity, strength in character and left a legacy in his dying that I found more insightful than any of the books he had passed to me. I sat with Tullio for many days during his palliative care when he was reduced to speaking only one language, his first, Portuguese. I was one of several who held his hand in those final hours when we knew death was close and as the western light began to fade on that pale yellow wall I lost one of the greatest Professors I had the pleasure to know.

4 Replies to “Learning by listening”

  1. Very well written Christine I didn’t have to take my red pen out once, you have a gift, continue to write. You would have made him proud!

  2. Beautiful piece, Christine. A wonderful tribute to Tullio and Bob. Those were the best and the worst of times that I will never forget. You capture them brilliantly.

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