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."


Cathy said...

Dr. Schwab,
That is such a wonderful story! Your parents were certainly a beautiful couple.

I think your Dad would have been very proud of what you have made of yourself.

Thank you for posting this.

M. Dyspnea said...

Rereading it, the passage hits me more than it did at first. The last time I laughed at how blunt it was. Now, I'm just sort of awed by the circumstance.

It's great that you write about it.

Anonymous said...

A sad story, beautifully told.

I'm also glad that you posted this.

Anonymous said...

I envy your connection and relationship with your father. You never knew him but he was a positive influence and a blessing to you.

My father lived to be 75 years old. He never once complimented me and on a number of occasions he sabotaged my efforts to accomplish things like get into collage or get my first job adter college. My most powerful memory of him is him calling me an idiot. When he died it was a relief knowing that he was not going to be around anymore.

Bo... said...

This was a great story. And I really love knowing the stories behind family pictures. Sometimes when I'm in my patients' homes, I'll see their picture walls and I'll ask about the people in the older photographs--who the person is, what they did, etc.

Anonymous said...

Awe! The photographs are beautiful. Funny, my daughter was going to be a vet and changed to "human" surgery as my condition evolved. I think it's so true about you and your dad. She had the same reaction when she was in the cath lab, she thought and yet, seemlessly, you both completed your tasks. It's a wonderful testiment.

Anonymous said...

I love old pictures like those. Thanks for sharing such a great story. :)

Jo said...

What a lovely post.

Lynn Price said...

Just when I think you can't reach in and touch my heart any deeper with your insights, you haul off and put me in awe. What's left but to say, "thank you."

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful sense of humor your father had. Your mom deserves big thanks for sharing with you and you have my thanks for sharing with us.


jmb said...

Wonderful post, Dr S. I wonder how many people you have thinking about their fathers. I lost mine, when I was 17, 54 years ago. You inspired me to write a draft post about it which I will post eventually.I've lived in three different countries and after all that moving, I don't even have a photo of him.
I'm usually a lurker, but now I'm here I want to say how much I love your blog. I made this comment over at Medblog Addict's, but I'm going to say it again. I love your posts about surgical procedures which I think is funny since I'm squeamish and did Pharmacy instead anything involving hands on stuff.

Anonymous said...

"Had it been a way of meeting the man I never knew, and who never knew me?"

Oh, I think he knows you very well. Although you never got to meet him, it seems clear that his legacy certainly lives on, and proudly so.

Anonymous said...

wow. that story floored me. to imagine that tragedy your mom went through is truly the stuff of story, incomprehensible in any other form. to live it must have been ... no words. i'm glad she found happiness again, and that you had a father. the full circle of your life is truly remarkable, story book. how your mind made it through that first thyroidectomy is a fierce navigation indeed.

SeaSpray said...

Beautifully written Dr. Schwab - most endearing.

This past Sunday, our pastor said that he believed that God allows the people that are with him to look down and see the good things that we are accomplishing and no doubt your Dad has watched you carry on his legacy. Certainly your 2nd Dad influenced you as well.

They made a beautiful couple and your Mom was very pretty. I love the last thing your Dad said to your mom. That was so sweet, loving, sexy and funny. What a great final memory. It sounds like he loved her very much.

Bohemian Road Nurse - when I went into patient's houses to set up the Lifeline units for them, I would always take the time any time my scheduled appointments would allow me to talk with them. One of my favorite things was to inquire about the photographs in the rooms. Some times it was the grandchildren and sometimes their great grandparents. My favorite is their wedding pictures because I could see them in their youth and see them in the present and there was something sweet about that. I always wondered about all the hx in between. They loved to talk about there pictures!

Old trunks. I love old trunks. if they could talk - what kind of stories could they tell?

I have an old trunk that my uncle restored for me as a hope chest. He lined it with cedar and i keep linens in it. however, now I am thinking that while I am off from work that I should collect all the family treasures, i.e., old pictures and other sentimental items to store in there.

You were truly blessed to have 2 wonderful fathers in your life.

I have daddy issues. My father was not a nice man. I don't remember him but my mother's brother came in the middle of the night to rescue us from him (while he wasn't there) and brought us to live with my maternal grandparents. I was six the last time I saw him.

For years it was as though I lived unconsciously regarding him. i truly had no emotion in connection with him. I do remember asking questions and my mother refused to talk about him and always said "I'll tell you when you are older." but that never happened and somewhere in time - I stopped caring. When I was growing up (60's early 70's) friends would ask me where my father was and I would tell them that my parents were divorced. (When I was little I didn't even know that - Mom was so secretive)and my friends would say "ohhhh..I'm sorry" as if someone had died. Back then - even tho the era of "free love" was beginning, most people weren't divorced. maybe they lived in quiet desperation but they weren't divorced. Really though, they might as well have asked me what the weather was because I didn't have any feelings about him at all by that time - nothing.

It wasn't until I was 24 that I realized that I really did...of course I did.

Sorry Dr. Schwab - as usual another one of your posts spoke to me ...again.

Maybe when my blogging gets really real, I will finish the story.

I will say this to any Dads or future dads and this is an understatement - be there for your children, love them, encourage them - be their rock and their anchor. Love them unconditionally. Hug them. Don't punish but discipline in love when necessary as in disciple them.Enjoy and laugh with them.

As parents, we all can look back and have regrets - the shouldas,wouldas and couldas - but just remembering that we can never go back helps one to make more of an effort to be there for them.

iml said...

I am glad you became a doctor. Continuing where your dad has left off.

JS said...

You are a superb writer and story teller. Only an incredibly skilled communicator can cause the reader to assume, and to read, unwritten words in a piece as riveting as this.


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