Arne Vainio: Finding some medicine in the woods and by the fire

A sacred fire burns. Photo by Arne Vainio

Maple syrup needs sunny days and cold nights
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

“Maple syrup needs sunny days and cold nights. I always look forward to this time of year and I sit out all night long with my fire when I’m boiling syrup. My wife used to come out here with me when we were first married and after a few years she lost interest. She died about ten years ago and now I sit by the fire with my dog.”

He only came to the clinic once a year or so and for being in his seventies, he was in surprisingly good shape. He had a dry sense of humor, but a quick wit and he always seemed genuinely glad to see me and I looked forward to our visits. He never wanted to be on any medicines and for the most part, didn’t need any. He’d been in Vietnam and only let bits and pieces of that out with our visits.

He had a colonoscopy when I recommended it and lost fifteen pounds when his blood sugars started to creep into the prediabetes range. We talked about it, he didn’t want meds and lost weight and his sugars normalized. He used to smoke when he was in Vietnam and for a long time afterward, but his wife died of lung cancer and he quit smoking when she was diagnosed and hadn’t smoked in over a decade. He was retired and did lots of work in his garden and he cut his own firewood.

One day he brought me a pint jar of maple syrup and I let him know it wasn’t right for me to accept a gift.

“This isn’t a gift, Dr. Vainio and I’m not trying to curry favor for anything. I’m an old man and no one really respects me anymore and no one comes to visit me. I have a son, but he left home when he was seventeen and just before he graduated and I haven’t seen him since. You’re the only one who really seems to want to hear what I have to say. There’s a couple of weeks of my life in that jar and I thought about you when I was at my fire. You’re a part of that jar as much as I am.”

There wasn’t much I could say to that and I took the syrup home and used it to sweeten tea and I thought about him every time I used it.

He came to see me a couple of years ago and his blood pressure was still fine. He was walking a little more slowly and he didn’t smile as easily as he used to. His lungs were clear and his heart sounded fine and the rest of his exam was unremarkable.

“It’s been awhile. How have you been?” I asked him.

“Do you want the truth?”

“I do.” I said.

“I heard my son died out in California someplace. I’ve been thinking about him constantly and I always meant to find him. It sounds like he drank himself to death and I’m a big part of what happened to him. I wasn’t much of a father.”

“It’s been a long time. People make bad decisions that don’t have anything to do with anyone else. Blaming yourself doesn’t help anyone, especially you.”

“It’s more than that, Dr. Vainio. I need to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else. When I was in Vietnam, I was just a kid and didn’t think anything bad could happen to me, but my best friend was shot as soon as we got there. That changed the way I looked at everything and all I wanted was revenge.”

He was quiet for a long time and I could tell he was thinking if he should continue to tell me what he started on. He slowly shook his head back and forth and went on:

“I was walking ahead of everyone else on a path we’d been on earlier and there was nothing there. We were kind of relaxed and I walked over a little hill and there was a Vietnamese kid carrying a rifle and walking up the other side. He wasn’t paying attention and he was looking at the ground like he was looking for bugs or flowers or something. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old.”

He stopped talking again and was looking at the floor. He swallowed and it seemed like it was hard for him to do and he had to swallow a couple of times.

“It was the revenge I was waiting for, Dr. Vainio. I swung my rifle up and he heard the strap rub on my jacket and he looked up. His eyes were wide open when I shot him and he fell on his back and he was dead before he hit the ground. His eyes were still wide open and he was staring straight up at the sky.”

He stopped looking at the floor and he looked up at me. “That didn’t feel as good as I thought it would and I got sick on the side of that path. No one said anything to me and I never really talked about it.”

“How often do you think about it?” I asked him.

“All the time. I drove my son away from me. He was playing baseball when he was about twelve and he was in the outfield. He was looking at flowers or something and he missed a fly ball he should have caught and I lost it and started yelling at him from behind the fence. He looked up at me and his eyes were wide open and all I could see was that kid in Vietnam and I could never see anything else in him. How could I tell him what happened? How would he ever understand that? I drove him away and I knew I was the reason he left.”

He looked at me and I waited for him to go on.

“I drove him away and I know that’s the reason he drank himself to death. How can I apologize to him? How can I apologize to that kid I shot in Vietnam? When I make my maple syrup, it’s the only time I find any peace. My dog stays by the fire and I can hear the popping and the cracking of the trees and sometimes I can hear deer walking in the snow out in the woods. My dog used to chase them, but now he’s getting old and he doesn’t bother. I look up at the moon and I watch the clouds go past and it’s the same moon that kid in Vietnam would have looked at. I make my syrup for him, Dr. Vainio. I always make my syrup for him.”

He stood somehow taller as we shook hands and he walked more easily than when he came in. I knew in that handshake he didn’t need to come back. The medicine he needed was in the woods and the moon and the fire and it was in having just one other person share his burden.

When I feel the time is right, I’ll go for a long drive in the middle of a cold winter night and I’ll look for a fire deep in the woods off a narrow side road in Wisconsin. I’ll find an old man and a dog sitting by the fire and I know he’ll know it’s me before I even get there.

I think he’ll be expecting me.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be reached at

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