The professor was dying. His wife had preceded him three years before, and now he had less than one month. During the mornings, he worked with a meditation guide. In the evenings his caregiver bathed him and changed his clothes. The hospice nurse visited twice each week. And every afternoon he visited with friends.
“Really, what could be more worthwhile than the study of man?”
“The study of woman?”
“Ah, yes,” said the professor, winking at his visitor. “I forget how old I am. Or, rather, I forget how old my language is; I never forget my age of late.”
His visitor was a woman in her early thirties who smiled often and held her old friend’s hand for brief moments whenever she arrived and whenever she left. They talked throughout her stay, never sitting in silence as he did with some of the others, and they always talked about their disciplines.
“Are you giving your paper at the conference?” asked the professor.
“It’s not ready.”
The professor sighed. “What a pity,” he said. “I would like to have heard the panel’s impression, if only on tape.”
“And my impressions.”
“Yes, those too.” The professor smiled. So many visited, but no one brought papers. Everyone wanted to talk about the cancer. So few wanted to talk about man.
“And what did you conclude?” he asked.
“Well, I hold with Pinker.”
“You always have.”
“Language is too elegant to have appeared all at once.”
The professor nodded. His head was propped on a pillow, and he was covered in blankets. His face was pale.
“Anne,” he said “You were elegant. You appeared at once, to me.”
Anne let out a small laugh and shook her head. “You will flirt to the end, I swear,” she said. “But about my paper.”
“Yes, your paper.”
“It’s simple,” she said. “We observed the mirror neurons firing when the orangutans saw an action, when they performed that action, and when they heard unrelated sounds that we associated with that action.”
The professor raised his eyebrows. “Is that verbatim from the paper?” he asked.
“More or less.”
The professor sighed and said nothing for a while, which was odd for him. And then he spoke. “So you’ve tied empathy and language together,” he said.
“’Tied’ is strong.”
The professor looked out the window. When he received the news that he was dying, he paid a carpenter to raise his bed to the level of the window sill. Outside, a cherry tree bloomed.
“Everything is connected,” he whispered. “I would never have allowed myself something so trite.”
Anne reached into her purse and pulled out a few pieces of typed paper. “I have a rough draft,” she offered.
The professor smiled but waved her off. “Here I am,” he said, “complaining to myself that no one wants me to read their papers anymore, and now you bring me yours and I find I have no energy to read it. But tell me”—and here the professor sat up a bit—“what does your paper tell us about how we should live?”
Anne frowned and leafed through the pages. “Well it’s neuroscience,” she said. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
He turned his head from the cherry tree and looked her in the eyes. “But surely it means something,” he said. “You are studying our ability to empathize with each other, to take others’ experiences and language and make them our own.”
Then Anne smiled. “You’re trying to teach me again,” she said.
His student straightened in her chair. “Well,” she said, “I would say that our research supports that mirroring, and perhaps empathy, are processes at least partially located in the primary motor cortex.”
The professor said nothing.
“And this might mean that empathy. . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Empathy is part of who we are.”
She looked away.
“It’s like I’m drawing it out of you with the rack,” said the professor.
Anne shook her head. “It’s not scientific,” she said. “I mean, it’s all well and good to talk about philosophical things like empathy or love when we are speaking as friends. But as scientists? These aren’t testable.”
The professor looked out again at his tree. Some blossoms were already fading, replaced by green leaves. In two weeks all the flowers would be gone.
“You sound like me,” he said, “when I argued with my wife. I told her I was the scientist.”
Anne said nothing.
“Oh, it’s not a criticism,” he said, turning back to her. “Only an observation. She was a painter. I thought her reasoning was soft—much like your thoughts of me, no doubt.”
“I never said that.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I no longer consider it an insult.”
The professor turned back to the tree. For some reason, he could no longer look her in the eyes. “You were my favorite student,” he said quietly. “I hope I was always kind to you.”
“I am glad you visited today. I have had no seizures today.”
His visitor said nothing.
“The tumors are deep inside,” said the professor. “When they show me scans, I can see them but I don’t know where they are. I suppose you would.”
She took his hand again and held it lightly.
“You study a beautiful thing,” said the professor, “such a beautiful thing. Don’t you see? Our ability to care for each other like we do is what we gain in exchange.”
He stopped speaking.
“In exchange for what?” whispered Anne.
“In exchange for knowing that we are going to die,” he said.
They said nothing for a while. The professor looked at his cherry tree. She held his hand.