Old Brother Vincent 1927-2009

Brother Vincent Cincotta
He never liked it when I called him that; old. Not that I had grown to be that free with the man, but I did call him old once. No wait, twice. And he did retaliate. Make no mistake, I respected Brother Vincent, or as he preferred us to address him; Hermano Vicente. It’s Spanish for Brother Vincent. He belonged to an order of monastic gentlemen committed to living a celibate life. The 63 year old American was fluent as a native Hispanic. And our confluence was based upon this fact. He taught me Spanish. I must say that I did receive a slap on my back the first time I called him old. It went something like this:

“Refiriendo a personas, en Español, tenemos tres edades de años....” With regard to people, in Spanish we categorize age in three groups.

The man who had earlier revealed to us that he was born in 1947 proceeded to inform us that the first category was ages 0-30. The second category was ages 31-60. And the third category, which he referred to as the tercera edad, was age 60 and above.

“So what category do I belong to?” he enthusiastically asked in Spanish.

“La tercera edad,” I replied.

Why would he ask such a simple question? It wasn’t like him at all.

“Are you calling me old, young man?” he asked.

“No profesor. Es la respuesta de tu pregunta.” No sir. It’s the answer to your question.

With this Brother Vincent smiled. I had never seen him warm up to class conversation. It was a first and there was no press to cover it. The man was actually elated. With this, he joyfully gave me friendly slap on the back with no little force. Friendly in America may just be war-like in Africa. In his defence, he said he looked 40.

He was quite right. The man looked healthy enough to be Tarzan’s side-kick. But who were we kidding? Brother Vincent was dying. His heart practically ran on a machine that functioned inside his chest cavity. He revealed this to us at the end of one of his classes when he alerted us he’d be going for surgery. He asked us to pray for him.

It was at this point that I was drawn to this man. Here he was, faithfully arriving to his classes on time and little did I know that he jogged every morning and walked as much as possible in a bid to keep his heart awake. He ate healthily and made peace with God. I admired Hermano Vicente. Withal, I still couldn’t fathom the reason I was drawn to him. Perhaps it’s the fact that we both shared a deep conviction in our faith in Christ Jesus and openly professed it. Or perhaps it’s the fact that we shared a strikingly similar personality in loving to take charge of things. Or maybe it was our mutual love for art, evident by his language office ornamented with souvenirs from the world he had travelled. Then again, perhaps it was his ardent input in organizing trips to foreign countries for students who took language minors. Through the Windows to the World program, Hermano Vicente, made language learning a real experience. From China to France, Japan to Spain, he made it possible for students to visit the country of origin of the language they learnt. It wasn’t what drew me to him though. Or perhaps it was the fact that he was teaching the Spanish course for free. When three eager students desperately wanted the class but the university had denied them due to low enrollment, Hermano Vicente took it up without receiving any pay. He believed in fulfilling passion. Yet at this point where conflict of personal gain confronts passion, Hermano Vicente stood untainted. His lines never crossed. He taught us without receiving his wages despite us having paid the university for taking the course.

Any strain on his heart was emotionally unbearable for me. So I carried his briefcase for him after class. I could have sworn it was filled with gold bars. How did he lift the damn thing?

“Your parents raised you well, young man,” he expressed with every gesture of kindness in carrying his brief-case.

Brother Vincent had more passion for the Spanish language than Puss in Boots. I shared the same passion but my intentions were inconsistent with his. He wanted to turn me into an Alejandro Spanish speaking machine. I just wanted to graduate. He wanted to ensure that I knew my way around Madrid. I just wanted to add Spanish to my list of languages. He wanted to have a lasting friendship with his students. At least we shared that mutual intention.

Hermano Vicente went for surgery and did not return within the three days he promised. We received updates from Lynette, the senior course-advisor, that his stay at the Nairobi Hospital would be longer than anticipated. We missed close to three weeks of the Business in Spanish class, hoping that he would recover. And recover he did. However, he returned an unhappy man. None of his students had taken the effort to visit him and he let us know his hurt. Guilt fused with remorse pierced my soul. Could I have been so heartless? How could I ignore to pay the man just one visit to hospital that would cost me nothing? Clearly, he was keeping his end of the bargain of maintaining a relationship with his students. I wasn’t even trying. My omission of compassion ate my heart out. I was failing, miserably, and I was very ashamed of it.

He was close to God and like God he forgave quickly. It made me feel worse but it healed me instantly. He resumed teaching, still unpaid, and compensated for all the missed classes with make-ups. Altruism was this man’s lifestyle; nothing short of it. Not to admire him was synonymous to not breathe.

A few days later and Hermano Vicente was back at The Nairobi Hospital. I wasn’t going to hoard my compassion this time. The immediate Sunday, before the Spa-fest dance concert, I paid him a visit accompanied by my girlfriend. I was determined to make the visit worthwhile for him. He would be elated.

As we approached his ward, a male nurse informed us that he had been moved. The service on this day was unusually poor; unlike The Nairobi Hospital. A different nurse came to see us and informed us he was in ward number four. She asked us to wait. When the wait seemed too long, I allowed myself entry into the ward. Number six, five…ah four...here we are. The bed was empty. The nurse must have been mistaken. The first nurse returned and seemed displeased to find me by the bedside.

“Where is he?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” he said under his breath.

“What do you mean you don’t know? He didn’t just walk off. Where’s the other nurse?”

The male nurse appeared as if on cue.

“Follow me.”

I obeyed. I was taken to a bed at the end of the ward. Finally, I thought. I would hide and surprise him when he wasn’t looking. Then again, it wouldn’t be best for his heart, I thought. I immediately dismissed the idea. I was surprised to find a team of doctors seated in the ward.

“Who is Brother Vincent to you?” one of the male doctors inquired.

His tone was impersonal. Was it criminal for a Kenyan to visit an American in hospital? I almost lost my cool at this question.

“I am a student of his at USIU,” I replied with feigned calmness.

“She is too,” I lied about my girlfriend as she approached us.

I didn’t want to go see him without her. He had asked me before if Jean-Sarah, my desk-mate in the Spanish class, was my girlfriend.  I refuted. He didn't believe me. I had counter-proof this time if he raised the question again. It would shock him that I wasn’t lying about Jean. But it would humor him to finally meet Turi, my girlfriend.

“You may want to sit down for this,” the doctor said to me.

The worst fear occupied my mind and the doctor confirmed it.

“Brother Vincent passed away last night. He stopped breathing at around 11pm. We tried to revive him but our efforts weren’t enough. The Order has been informed. Professor Brown and the USIU community…”

The rest of his words buzzed away as I strained to work my faculties. It was like I had been hit by a bus and survived the ordeal. I made my way to the lobby in the hands of Turi and the male nurse. I went slack for lack of acceptance of the bad news. Tears glistened my cheeks as I sat in the lobby still trying to establish the veracity of what the doctor had announced. I wept. I wept bitterly. We had lost him. We had actually lost him. A worse fact punched me in the stomach; two surgeries and in both times, I failed to visit the old man. It was too late to apologize so I let it out in tears too.

However, as the months turned to years, I finally discovered what might have drawn me to Hermano Vicente. It was this; a fore-knowing force that needed his story told to the generations to come; the story of the man with a machine heart but with more heart than many saints put together; the story of a man who changed the hearts of those who dared to take part in his life; the story of Vincent Cincotta Rest in Godly peace Hermano Vicente.