Thursday, February 22, 2007
a dusty trunk and a cardboard box
Ten days before I was born, my father died. Three and a half years earlier, my mom had been a twenty-one year old bride, excited and optimistic, proud of marrying the brilliant young physician whose given name I bear, and whose family name is my middle. I know he was brilliant because over the years I've heard it from many of his former colleagues and patients, and because when he married he'd just finished work as Chief Medical Resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At that time, the position was highly selective and much sought: the plumbest of the plumbs.
We're at our family home on the Oregon coast again, and my wife and I have been rummaging through old stuff, the contents of a trunk hiding in plain sight for many years. In it we found my mom's first bridal book (she married my adoptive dad when I was young enough that I have no real recollection of being fatherless. Their marriage lasted nearly sixty years, till my dad's death a little over a year ago.) Reading it for the first time is like re-reading a tragedy, knowing the ending: all the happiness, the smiling people, the florid and joy-filled notes vouching their certainty of the couple's future. Lists of gifts, with check-marks after each, denoting proper acknowledgment. Dozens of telegrams: congratulations and love. Stop. A dime-store booth-photo of the happy couple; a picture from the "society section" of the paper, showing Mom in a flowing gown, wearing a bonnet made from her mother-in-law's wedding dress. Perfectly preserved, there's an announcement of the opening of my father's office in the Medical Arts Building -- still standing in downtown Portland -- for the practice of "internal medicine and diagnosis," under which, in my mom's hand, is the breathless exclamation "the first of these went to me!!" It's easy to relate to the nervous anticipation of opening a medical office after all those years of study. But I know how the story turns out: none of them do. It's heartbreaking.
When I applied to colleges I indicated "pre-law" as my probable direction, but treading non-flammable bridges, when I got there, I took all the pre-med courses I'd need. During my first summer back at home, my mom brought out a box of letters and cards she'd gotten when my father died. They were from friends, colleagues, and patients, all with pretty much the same sentiments: a tragic loss, a brilliant career cut short, a young widow with two babies (my brother, a year-and-a-half at the time). Many made mention of the continuity of life: his death, my birth. That box (along with a nascent realization that I liked labs more than libraries) had much to do with my eventual decision in favor of a career in medicine.
My father died after an operation. He developed thyroid storm -- feared and frequently fatal in those days, virtually unknown now with the advent of greater understanding and better drugs -- the prevention of which was the purpose of the operation in the first place. I've done that operation many times for the same condition -- here's what I said about my first, in my book:
I’m no shrink. I’d given no thought to the factors that made me choose medicine, and then surgery, and then the kind that did thyroid operations, until I found myself doing the very operation that had killed my father, having made the simple preparations that would have saved him. As I entered the OR, I wondered: would it be a B-movie moment, a zoom-in on my sweaty brow as I froze up, the nurse looking worried, asking, “Is something wrong, doctor?” It didn’t happen. The operation flowed like any other. Had it been a way of meeting the man I never knew, and who never knew me? Of symbolically saving his life, while the quest saved my own? A meeting of souls in the ether, as it were? I’ve thought about it a lot since then. I like the idea, but I’m pretty sure the answer is no.
Looking through these precious things, I think maybe I was a little flip in the book. I wish I'd known him. He looks a lot like my brother and little like me, but I think I got his sense of humor. The last thing my mom remembers hearing from him, as he went off to surgery, is "You look really cute. I think I'll keep you pregnant all the time."