I lost my father when I was just a three-year-old kid, but through amazing and spiritually-touched events, his death, at the early age of forty-five, led me to become a nurse.
Growing up, I had no memories of him. Of course my mother told my brothers and me stories about “Daddy” to keep him alive and real to us. We knew he died of a heart attack on June 4th, 1950. We’d heard the story so many times we could picture him sitting in the big red chair in the living room and then just slumping over, leaving us. We could almost hear his newspaper rustling as it fell to the floor. But we weren’t there. When my mother found my father, she called the priest and the ambulance. Then, whether in shock or beginning her long struggle to carry on, she went into the kitchen and made formula for my baby brother.
That was our mythology—that was what we little kids knew as we jumped in that big red chair or passed by my father’s photograph, a handsome man looking out at us wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a maroon tie, a man with kind eyes, a half-smile.
And we knew that he had built the sandbox in the backyard and the Christmas stable that my mother brought out every year and filled with the figures of that blessed miracle.
But because my mother gave us love and security, we didn’t think of him. We said a prayer to him every night that my mother had made up, a prayer rattled off like a jump-rope rhyme. For on some level Daddy was there, the thought of him steadily present in the background of our lives. But we were kids. Deciding who got to wear the raccoon-tail hat when we played Davy Crockett or discovering what was for dinner was more important to us than thoughts of our dead parent.
School changed that. My fourth grade teacher handed out forms for us to complete. I tackled mine using my best penmanship until I came to the blank for “father.” I stopped. Everyone else was writing busily. The teacher was at the blackboard, her back to me. I raised my hand and kept it up until finally she turned around.
“What do I put for father?” I asked.
She studied me for a moment, as if she were truly seeing me for the first time. “Deceased,” she said curtly and swung back to her work.
What had she said? What was that word? I didn’t even know how to spell it.
But that day, and for many days after, that was my father. Not a pilot or a doctor or a man who carried a briefcase. Not a presence in my life, someone to take me to the Father-Daughter breakfasts, those ordinary affairs that offered only diluted orange juice and stacks of donuts on tables covered with stiff white paper. They would have been amazing for me had my father been there. But he wasn’t. He died too young. And in the pre-divorce age of the 1950’s my brothers and I were the only children in our grade school without a father.
As I grew, I felt the sting of this painful hole in my life. Daddy-Daughter dances. Graduations. Dating. My friends claimed they could convince their fathers of things more easily than their mothers. I ached for this connection and found myself yelling at my mother when we argued about boys. I would turn away from her, crying out that I wished my father were alive, that he would understand me.
And maybe I was on to something. I was surviving his loss. Selfishly I was taking care of me. He had left me. And aside from photographs and stories I felt
no solid connection to him. I really knew little about him. I had to change that. I sat with my mother who I really, truly loved, questioning her. She was always eager to talk about my father.
He had been a dentist. She told me about his patients and how my father’s wonderful sense of humor helped offset the pain he had to inflict in those years of dentistry, years when everyone hated the dentist. But not my father. When he died she received numerous letters claiming again and again how much he was loved and that there would never be anyone like him. This made sense to me, for often the mention of my unusual last name elicited questions from adults who had known my father, who praised his reputation and stressed what the community would always feel—his early death was a true tragedy.
To stress the history my mother took out some old photos, including a series taken of my father in his new dental office.
“Doesn’t he look handsome in his white coat?” my mother asked. I nodded, noticing the out-of-date instruments.
“Did I ever go there?” I asked her.
“Yes. But if your father had on his lab coat you would turn and run away and cry. You didn’t recognize him.”
And then there was one more photo.
“It’s from dental school,” my mother explained of the black and white photo of my father and a large group of students in white coats standing in a medical theatre near two cadaver tables.
“It’s gross I said.” I turned away. It meant absolutely nothing to me.
When I graduated from college my mother gave me her engagement ring and my father’s lavaliere from dental school. I was touched, but they both went into a drawer. I married my high school sweetheart and taught high school English. I was young and in love, energetic and immortal.
I gave birth to our two daughters.
And then a few years later I had chest pain. My heart was beating irregularly. I thought of my father. My doctor determined that I had a benign condition involving one of my heart valves. He assured me there was nothing to worry about. But I couldn’t help but wonder. My father died of a heart attack at forty-five. I was in my early thirties. Was I condemned to the same fate? One thing I knew for sure—I was no longer immortal.
I began to read every article about medicine I came across.
When my daughter cut her chin, needed stitches, I was right there soothing her, observing the ER doc, holding my own.
I searched for articles about heart valves and heart disease.
I helped my daughter through minor surgery and a lacerated leg.
I read books by Dr. Oliver Sacks and Dr. Richard Selzer. I slipped my father’s lavaliere onto a gold chain and wore it.
I wanted a third child. But I was infertile.
I read articles and asked questions and sought out physicians. I went through infertility treatments and prayed and never lost hope. I believed in medicine, in God’s will. I believed in my husband and myself and that we would have a healthy baby.
After three years, at the age of forty-two, I delivered a perfect baby boy.
I kept reading. I read about diet and high cholesterol and plaque and blocked arteries. I was approaching my mid-forties. I was my father’s daughter.
But some pieces of the puzzle surrounding my father’s death were still missing. I had to fill in those pieces. Something was pushing me to learn why my father died. I just knew I had to grasp it, understand it, make it part of me so that I could accept the many years I have lived without him. And something else was happening. I was experiencing a great desire to go back to school, to become part of the medical profession, to become a nurse. It was a longing inexplicable to me in many ways, yet a desire that just wouldn’t let me go.
My mother supported my need to go back to school. And she sat with me answering questions about my father, recounting his high blood pressure and the fatigue and insomnia she felt were directly related to the stress of his profession.
Then she mentioned his left arm pain and chest pain. It was nagging and constant she told me. An electrocardiogram, EKG, revealed nothing unusual. My father sought other opinions, but nothing was done. There were no tests or procedures in those days to reveal coronary artery disease or to treat it. And no one asked him or knew at that time that my father’s diet, which often consisted of his favorites—sweets and butter—was contributing to his heart disease.
The suggestion was made privately to my mother that my father was a hypochondriac who just worried too much about his health. As we sat there holding hands I ached for her and what she had been through. At that time there were no other resources. All my mother could do was go home, take care of her children and beg my father to rest. And she prayed. She prayed like crazy. But she must have known all along what would happen. And my father did too.
A former patient of my father’s revealed that she came upon him sitting outside the dental office on a sunny day. He looked despondent.
“Can I help you, Doctor?” she asked him.
He looked up at her. “No one can help me,” he told her.
My father knew. His doctors had sent him home—to die.
And so I put it all together, the medical part of my father’s death, his heart attack and coronary artery disease brought on by high blood pressure, high cholesterol diet, and stress. Genetics figured in somewhere too.
I found some comfort in finally understanding why the doctors could not help him. But then the comfort stopped. I still had lived most of my life without a father. Why? Why had God let this happen? I still didn’t see clearly the path I was walking upon. I was moving toward an answer, but it wasn’t revealed to me yet.
Anatomy and physiology are required courses in the first year of nursing. I was so fascinated by the study that I elected to take an additional cadaver class. After weeks of examining drawings and slides, I stood in a white lab coat with my fellow students looking down on a spirit of medicine, a human body granted to us for study and learning. I was reverent and careful, understanding the privilege of my position. And I saw that such a privilege would always be mine when I reached out to touch anyone that I cared for—man, woman or child.
At that table I could feel my father hovering over me. And I remembered the photograph of his cadaver class. No longer gross to me, I saw that I had stepped across some great divide. I had gone back to school to discover medicine and in doing so I had found my father. I now believe that there were always deep desires and thoughts, yearnings and meanings in my life that I had to discover. There were things beyond my knowledge and understanding that had to be completed. God was surely at work. My desire to know and understand who my father was had led me to a career where I would help so many people.
No longer worrying about the chance of having a heart attack, I saw that my father’s legacy was one of life, not death. I had learned a new discipline, launched myself into a new career, but most importantly I had filled a life-long emptiness inside me—I found my father. He was no longer a stranger to me, no longer just the handsome man in the maroon tie. I knew him now, knew what interested and fascinated him, identified with the compassion and care he gave his patients, knew my longings were echoes of his own. What I had discovered took my breath away—I was his daughter, we were alike—we had connected. I was forty-five.