There’s a story my father used to tell from his days as an ER resident. An old lady showed up for care, and when he asked her what had brought her in, she calmly raised a hand, showing him her palm. It was pierced straight through with a long darning needle. I don’t remember him saying how the needle got through her hand or what he did to help her (I can only imagine he anesthetized the area, removed the needle, and sterilized and bandaged the wound). But over the years, whenever he mentioned that lady and her darning needle, it was always with baffled awe. Her story seemed a lesson in stoicism, in holding it together in a moment of astonishing pain.
My dad had other, equally outlandish stories. There was the guy who stumbled into the ER with nails hammered into his skull—he’d been drunk and his friends had dared him to do it. There was the woman in a psych ward who beckoned my dad over, then grabbed him by the tie and began choking him until he managed to break free.
There was another story that traced back to the very start of his career. During his first year of medical school, my father and some other students were working late one night in the anatomy lab, and one of the students had the bright idea to give the campus security guard a scare. The guard, an elderly WWI veteran, was slowly making his rounds, and as his footsteps sounded in the hall, the student climbed onto a gurney, covered himself with a sheet, and lay down. When the old man entered the room, the student sat up slowly. The guard clutched at his chest and collapsed. Soon after, he was pronounced dead of a heart attack.
My father hadn’t participated in the prank, but he’d been around for it, and he felt guilty about the episode, even decades later. The guard had been very old and probably near the end of his life anyway, but he didn’t deserve to go like that—nobody did. But it was always clear that my dad’s remorse over the incident was tinged with amusement; the routine realities of medical school were the stuff of gallows humor. (As it happened, the student who climbed onto the gurney didn’t stay in the profession for long but soon quit to become a radio personality.)
Many of my dad’s favorite memories were about delivering babies. He studied obstetrics as part of his general training and worked in family medicine in Ontario at the start of his career. During that time, he assisted in hundreds of deliveries. There was the woman who showed up at the hospital complaining of abdominal cramps and then left, several hours later and to her absolute amazement, with a healthy newborn baby in tow. There was the obese patient who required a C-section and whom my father had to “scale like a mountaineer” to make the incision. (It wasn’t until I was an adult and a mother myself that I felt the insensitivity of that anecdote.) Then there was the thirty-year-old woman who showed up at the hospital in advanced labor. Not until well into the delivery did my dad learn that the patient wasn’t actually thirty. He’d misheard the nurse: she was thirteen.
The first delivery he attended was during his obstetrics training. The circumstances were perfect for a nervous doctor-in-training. The laboring mother already had twelve children at home, and my dad needed only to position himself at the end of the bed and catch this latest arrival. To his enormous relief, he did it. Over dessert one night, he described the business of catching babies, explaining how to get a proper grasp on a newborn’s slippery ankle. Around the table, we kids shaped our hands into that grip and pictured other, less dexterous physicians who failed this basic test, letting newborns slip through their fingers and go sliding across the floor like wayward otters.
Mixed in with his own experiences were tales of physicians from the past. He loved the story of Alexis St. Martin, the nineteenth-century trapper who suffered a near-fatal gunshot wound to the stomach. The injury never properly healed, which provided St. Martin’s doctor, William Beaumont, a literal window into the wonders of digestion. My father was also a passionate student of Civil War medicine. He explained more than once how to perform a limb amputation. The essential step, he would say, was to cut two flaps and suture them together. I once teased him about this. “You never taught me how to change a tire, but at least I know how to perform an emergency amputation!”
He smiled playfully and shrugged. “You never know when you might need it.”
Early in medical school, he had thought about specializing in surgery, but the intrigues of amputation notwithstanding, he found surgery too mechanical a profession. He wanted a more interpretive path, one that would let him do what he enjoyed most of all: standing back and pondering. He found that in gastrointestinal radiology. One of my earliest memories was accompanying him to the hospital and standing in a small, unlit room as he murmured into a tape recorder while examining X-rays hung on panes of light. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but his tone was warm and amiable. It was the same tone he used when he talked about his favorite books or poetry. He took unmistakable pleasure in reading those X-rays, and seeing him do it gave me a deep respect for expertise and even for jargon itself, esoteric vocabularies acquired from years of ruminating over shapes and forms indecipherable to outside observers.
My dad died in the spring of 2019, and since then I’ve talked with my siblings about him often. There are eight of us kids, each with our own set of memories, which sometimes intersect and sometimes don’t. Grief has given me a renewed appreciation for my brothers and sisters. If it weren’t for them, the full weight of my dad’s memory would fall on me, and, as someone with notoriously bad recall, I don’t know if I’d be up to the task. One of my older sisters has a mind like a steel trap, and when I brought up the memory of watching our dad read X-rays, she reminded me that it wasn’t just us kids who admired his X-ray–reading skills. Among his peers, he was considered an expert interpreter. When other doctors had failed to make sense of a scan, it was brought to him, and frequently he was the first to notice an abnormality. I’m struck now by what a wildly practical gift that is, to be a reader of human entrails, a diviner of the digestive tract. He saw danger where other people didn’t. What he saw on those scans was sometimes a death sentence, but often it was the very news that made it possible to intervene and save the person’s life.
My dad was a doctor, but he was also a father, and the authority that served him at work didn’t always translate into life at home. There was something of the Victorian patriarch about him. He had high and even demanding ideals of what home and family life should be. His favorite day of the year was Christmas Eve. He read aloud poetry by Tennyson and Shelley to us at dinner. He and my mom, in the early years of their marriage, probably looked forward to having a nice passel of obedient children, but they ended up instead with a house of mouthy daughters (five to be exact, followed by a son, and then two more sons who arrived by adoption).
Once, when one of my younger sisters was little, she ate all the olives at dinner before anyone else could have one, and when my dad saw her guilty grin and the empty dish, he pounded the table, making the glasses and silverware dance. He declared that if any of us ever did such a thing again there would be “dire consequences.” We all fell silent, chastened, but then the same little sister snickered, and the rest of us started laughing. He glowered for another moment, then cracked a smile. He was a regal person (ambition, he once told me, was a quality he had tried his whole life to quell), but he was, in his own way, modest. It’s possible to be both.
In the early years of his career, before he left family practice, he delivered some four hundred babies. Then, well after switching his specialty to radiology, he delivered one final baby: me. The obstetrician assigned to my mother didn’t show up, so my dad swept in and attended my birth. Of all his anecdotes, this is my favorite. When you’re a child from a big family, and a middle one at that, there’s a perpetual feeling of scarcity, if only for the limited resource of a parent’s attention. So, I take no small delight in being able to say that my father helped usher me into the world. The image of him dashing to my mother’s side feels comedic in some important, defining way. I’m not sure if the comedy is romantic or slapstick, but without question a wacky twist of fate preceded my arrival.
Just as at his first delivery, my dad was mainly an observer, a sure-handed professional to do the catching. That was how we met, he and I—he, still in possession of his hair, and I, squashed-faced, furious, and probably covered in vernix. He held me to the light to confirm that I was the healthy pink of a well-oxygenated piglet, not a dangerous blue or a worrisome yellow. He likely issued a slap that started the engine of my lungs. That was our first conversation—he, laughing and knowing everything, and me howling and knowing nothing. Was it coincidence that his tenure as a deliverer of babies ended with me, or did he take one look at me and think, yeesh, enough of that?
In all seriousness, it amazes me to think that, until he died, my dad carried around a memory of me at the moment of my birth. The memories of parents and children are necessarily imbalanced. We can’t recall our own births, which puts us at an existential disadvantage. Maybe that’s why caring parents tell stories about their children’s early years—to bolster the child’s sense of their own reality. I know this to be true with my own kids. Sometimes I flip through old journals for just this reason. There’s nothing my daughter likes more than to hear how adorable and proud she looked in her ballet outfit at age two. There’s nothing my son likes more than hearing how, not yet three, he would stand on a kitchen chair and solemnly sing all the words to “Break on Through,” by the Doors.
My dad certainly talked to us about our early years, but many of his most vivid anecdotes had nothing to do with us—they were about the dumb, brave, or unlucky people who populated emergency and delivery rooms. Occasionally he discussed much sadder events, too, episodes I haven’t told here and really don’t want to tell involving injury or death to children (blood clots, house fires, railroad tracks, trampolines).
Why did he tell us all these stories? The good ones and the bad, I mean. Why not keep them to himself? In the past, I might have responded that stories don’t need justifying. Like food or books, they’re meant to be shared, and the takeaway from all my dad’s tales was that the world is an unpredictable place full of people doing unpredictable things, and he was the one at the center of it all, holding it all together.
I see it differently now, of course. Death renders him vulnerable and pushes me to see him in more complex terms. I know now that his stories were an effort to connect, a bid for our respect and love. They affirmed the values of listening and conversation, shaping the peculiar micro-culture of our family.
But that doesn’t explain those sadder episodes. Why did he talk about them? When I raised this question with my sisters, my oldest sister pointed out that some of the worst experiences, especially those involving kids, must have been traumatic for him. Maybe by talking about them he hoped to ward off danger and keep his own children safe.
I’m embarrassed to say that I balked a little at this explanation, the child in me resisting the idea that my dad had experienced hurt or pain. But it’s true, of course. The task of seeing one’s parent as a full human being is apparently an ongoing one—it probably takes a lifetime. I recently told a friend the story of the old lady and the darning needle, and she wisely observed that the episode might not have been just a lesson in stoicism; it might have also been a lesson in shock, namely in how the line between stoicism and shock can be a blurry one. Now I wonder how often my dad walked that line.
Now that he’s gone, his stories have settled into the place in my mind reserved for memories. Each carries with it the scene of its original telling: the dinner table, the walks, the car rides. But the stories themselves also feel alive, independent of language. In a sense, I really do remember that unlucky veteran collapsing in the lab and that thirteen-year-old girl panting on the delivery table. I even sort of remember my own birth, the stupidly bright lights and my dad’s face as he handed me over to my mother. Our inner worlds are so separate and easily lost, but so many plotlines run between us. We’re first interpreted by our parents, who give us volumes, and from the moment we can understand, we begin to read.