Dies Natalis

It's a rainy old day outside. Not storming, just dripping gently, just enough to tantalize the puppy when we go out for her to do her business, but not enough to drive us back in without giving her some time to play. My husband is off to work and my son is at school. So now I'm here at home alone with the pets--and the memories.

Today is the fifth anniversary of my father's death. It doesn't hurt as much to say that as I thought it would. Perhaps there has simply been enough time. Perhaps I am no longer feeling guilty for having spent the last week of his life finishing that article now that it is finally published and, even better, being well-received. Indeed, it may turn out to be one of the most important things I have ever written.* More to the point, in so many ways, I wrote it for him. I wish....

I was going to write, "I wish that he had been able to read it." But he didn't need to. I had been arguing over its argument with him for years. And yet, I needed him to. Is that true? Time for the big confession of the decade, maybe my working life: I am afraid that without my father to push me with his questions--and his need for answers--that I won't be able to write anything truly significant any more. Ha. I meant that to come out all soulful and terrifying, but it just sounds silly now that I write it. Let me see if I can explain things a little better.

My father loved asking the question "Why?" We couldn't take a walk through our neighborhood without him stopping every third step (in many ways, it was like walking the puppy) to peer at a flower or light a cigarette (actually, he could do that walking, so let's just stick with the flowers) and exclaim, "Look, it's a Fibonacci number! The number of petals is always 5 or 8 or 13. Why is that?" We couldn't sit down to dinner without him popping a beer (yes, my father was an alcoholic, not to mention a brilliant and caring surgeon) and saying, "Life, how does it work? The only reason that we as doctors are able to do anything is because the body heals itself." I couldn't mention a paper or class prep that I was working on without him asking, "Do you know how to do history now? That's the important thing, you need to have learned how to do history. That's what you should be teaching them." But his favorite question of all was the one that I have spent the most time trying to answer: "What is spirituality? Why is it that we feel this need to pray?"

Okay, I'm not entirely sure that he ever actually phrased it precisely that way, but it is the gist that I took away. My father--smoker, drinker, surgeon, car driver--spent his whole life on a quest. Sadly, for us kids and our mother, part of that quest included leaving us to go live with somebody else. My brother still hasn't forgiven him for that. I didn't fully understand at the time why he left (I was 11, the oldest of us three kids), although I could tell it had something to do with wanting to try different things, things my mother simply wasn't interested in, like skiing and car racing and camping out in the woods. And I think, in truth, that he was happy for a time. But it was a mistake and he spent the last twenty years or so of his life paying for it in guilt and self-recrimination. (Plus, his second wife left him to go have her own kids, go figure.)

Did my father pray? Constantly. Never. I have no idea. I know that he talked about spiritual stuff all the time. And dragons. That was a memorable evening: my father, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I, walking (sort of) through the quiet streets of Inverness after the pubs had closed, my father having had several too many, and asking us the whole way back to the bed-and-breakfast in a slurred and oh-so-audible voice, "Dragons. What happened to all the dragons? That's what I want to know." Did I mention that he received multiple teaching awards from his surgery students? Maybe he was teaching them about dragons.

I miss my father. I cried over him for easily a year, I think as much for myself, that I had not been there for him at his death (I was, yes, I am ashamed to say, at fencing practice) as for him. He certainly lived, as they say, a full life. A football player in high school, college where he met my mother, medical school at one of the top schools in the country, service in Thailand as a surgeon during the Vietnam War, three kids, teaching surgery at one of the top trauma departments in the field (or so, at least, he always told me; I think it was true): told in these terms, he was a great success. He never published as much as he wanted to (surprise, surprise), but I believe one of his papers on head injury and shock is still referenced in his field and made a significant impact on treatment of trauma patients.

And yet, there was a dark side, of which the smoking and drinking were only the tip. Do I really mean dark side? Dad made friends if not easily, then passionately, particularly among the people with whom he used to hang out working on cars. They called him "Doc" and smiled and ribbed him when he would start talking the thermodynamics of car engines. William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, was his hero. Dad loved quizzing everyone on the laws of thermodynamics that Kelvin helped formulate. He also loved Robert the Bruce, to whom he (thanks to his father) was convinced we were related. "Never give up," he used to say in his cups, recalling the story of the Bruce and the spider. "Never give up!"

Okay, that doesn't sound so dark, but I haven't told you the half of it. Really, you don't want to know. Suffice it to say, my father, brilliant surgeon that he was, died broke. There was supposed to be yet another hearing today about his estate, which, yes, five years later we still haven't closed. What happened to all the money? Cars. Women. More cars. More women. His last girlfriend was a doozie. She vanished with one of the cars, although I think we actually got that one back. Did I mention that she was a stripper? Exotic dancer, please. Most definitely non-prescription drugs were involved. Not that my dad did those, the alcohol was enough, and, indeed, he spent the last decade or more of his life going to AA meetings. A good number of the people who came to his funeral (and there were hundreds--my father was loved) whispered to us in the reception line that they had met him through AA.

A full life, indeed. It was impossible to keep up with Dad, he was so good at so many things. I remember a gun--black-powder rifle, to be exact--that he was working on. He loved making things, working with his hands. That's what I remember most vividly about him: his hands. All knuckles and gentleness. Okay, now I'm crying. My father was a big man, over six feet tall, and his hands were correspondingly big. But so gentle and caring. He saved so many people's lives with those hands. Soldiers and veterans and young men who had cut each other with knives (remember, he did trauma). Old people whose hearts were failing. Young people who had been shot. Some of them, I think, came to his funeral, too. But not all. That would have taken a stadium to hold.

And yet, he could not save himself from himself. No, he didn't commit suicide, although it's a miracle that he did not. For years when I was in graduate school, I dreaded the phone ringing, worried that it would be Dad in one of his moods. "I'm going to kill myself," he would say. "No, Dad," I would plead, "don't! I need you, don't! Please, don't." I think my brother got the worst of it in those years, when Dad would spend the time he wasn't scaring me badgering my brother about whether he knew history (my brother does comparative literature, really, a totally different field). But I remember those phone calls. And I remember, too, all of the times, after my husband and I moved here to Chicago, that Dad would drive up to see us from Louisville and badger us about the Bears. He died the year before they finally made it back to the Superbowl.

In the end, it wasn't cancer that got him, despite all the cigarettes. Nor was it a car wreck; Dad was actually an extremely safe--if fast--driver. I don't think he was ever in an accident. Nor was it his liver, amazingly enough. It was an embolism following a stroke. Most likely the blood clot came from the varicose veins in his legs, which he had had for as long as I can remember. He was a surgeon and surgeons spend a lot of time standing on their legs. Dad's legs looked like fleshy cauliflowers, all filled with blood. Maybe if he had had them fixed when he was in his thirties, but he was too busy then. And in his forties. And in his fifties. And in his sixties, when he died. Too busy taking care of patients. Too busy asking impossible questions of his kids.

No, he wasn't a saint. He wasn't, if you met him in the wrong mood, even a particularly nice person. But for his students and patients and car guys and fellow-AAers and me, he was real, more real than almost anybody else I have known. You might not like him very much, but you couldn't ignore him. He wouldn't let you, because it was so important to him to get to the answer to the only question (as he would put it) that ever really matters: "Why?"

*In case you're curious, here's the reference: "Mary," in Christianity in Western Europe, eds. Miri Rubin and Walter Simons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 283-96.


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