Finding My Father

I lost my father when I was just a three-year-old kid, but 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.”  We knew he died of a heart attack in our home.  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.

That was our mythology 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.

But we didn’t think of him.  We had my mother.  We said a prayer to him every night, a prayer rattled off like a jump-rope rhyme.  On some level he was there, the thought of him present in the background of our lives.  But we were kids.  Deciding who got to wear the Davy Crockett raccoon-tail hat 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 until I came to the blank for “father.”  I stopped.  Everyone else was writing busily.  The teacher had 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 with diluted orange juice and stacks of donuts.  But they would have been amazing for me had my father been there.  In the pre-divorce age of the 1950’s my brothers and I were the only children in our grade school without a father.

I  felt the sting of this hole in my life even more as I grew.  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, wishing my father were alive—he would understand me.

And maybe I was on to something.  I was surviving his loss, taking care of me.  He had left me.  I felt no solid connection to him and knew little about him.  To change that, I sat with my mother, who I really, truly loved, and asked her to talk about my father.

He was a dentist.  She told me how my father’s wonderful sense of humor helped offset the pain he had to inflict on his patients in those years prior to modern dentistry.  At that time everyone hated the dentist.  But not my father.  When he died she received numerous letters stating 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, praised his reputation and stressed that his early death was a true tragedy.

Then my mother took out some old photos, including a series taken of my father in his new dental office.

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,” turning away.

And I was right.  It was gross anatomy.

In my thirties when I discovered I had a benign heart valve condition, I suddenly wanted to know more about my father’s medical history.  This led me to read every article about medicine I came across and to search for information about heart valves and heart disease.

I read books by Dr. Oliver Sacks and Dr. Richard Selzer.  I slipped my father’s lavaliere from dental school onto a gold chain and wore it.

I kept reading.  I read about diet and high cholesterol and plaque and blocked arteries.   I was approaching my mid-forties.  And I was my father’s daughter.

I knew some pieces of the puzzle surrounding my father’s death were missing.  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, but it just wouldn’t let me go.

My husband and children and my mother supported my need to go back to school.  Again Mom recounted to me my father’s high blood pressure, the fatigue and insomnia that 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.  An electrocardiogram, EKG, revealed nothing unusual.  My father sought other opinions, but there were no tests or procedures in those days to reveal coronary artery disease or to treat it.  And no one knew at that time that my father’s diet, which often consisted of his favorites—sweets and butter—was contributing to his heart disease.

But my father knew he was going to die.  A patient of my father’s told my mother 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.

He knew.

Now it’s a pretty clear picture: coronary artery disease brought on by high blood pressure, high cholesterol diet, and stress.  Death: myocardial infarction.  Heart attack.  And genetics.  Now I had this knowledge.

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.  My desire to know and understand who my father was had led me to a career where possibly I could help other people.

Now I don’t worry about his cardiac history.  My father’s legacy is one of life, not death.  I launched myself into a new career, but most importantly I filled a life-long emptiness inside me—I found my father.  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.