Rounds with Dad always started with the car. Six years old, riding shotgun in the 280Z. Metallic blue with racing seats in shoe polish white. Through the shadows of the elms, sunlight falls like confetti. Take in a breath and the scent of lilacs falls too. There’s the jutting of a sprinkler, a lone billowy cloud, that house where kids sell lemonade. We pass the church where Kate went to pre-K, and two blocks later, Mom’s all-girls high school. Ccrane my neck to glimpse the ducks on the pond. With none to see, I turn around.
“Is it time?”
“Get ready,” Dad says.
Clutching my palm over his, I smile to know what’s coming. Radio’s off, window’s down, I can hear the whoosh of the breeze.
The engine revs.
“Now,” Dad says, and we shift into third.
There comes a thrust, a slight jerk forward, and the stick finds its gear.
“That’s my favorite part,” I say. And Dad smiles.
In our family, Medicine took on a mythical persona. Like the morals of Aesop’s Fables, the myth lived and breathed in us. It sprang to life in the wide-open halls of St. Luke’s Hospital, where Dad saw patients. The building’s white pillars stood bold against the brick, and the old clock tower rivaled the beautiful ones of New England. With its Puritanical austerity, St. Luke’s could have fit in on a college campus. Bordering the inner-city, its majesty was out of place.
Rounds brought perspective to an idyllic life. I remember them in parts. The royal blue carpeting in the office. The dim glow of a lamp illuminating a room. The resounding stillness that hung over everything. I can recall oxygen tubes up the nose, the drip of an I.V., the synthetic scent of 1970s cleanser.
For a shy girl, the fold of Dad’s lab coat made for the perfect cloak. Twirl your hair fast enough, you can spin yourself invisible. With a gentle nudge forward, he urged me to say hello. And St. Luke’s became a training ground for overcoming shyness. Extending their hands, the patients gave mine a slight squeeze. Many were elderly, and the softness of their skin still resonates. Looking into their eyes, I swam into a sea of acceptance. Sometimes I saw pain, other times a joy I was too young to understand. Patients always smiled to see a child come through. Musta looked like sunshine peeking through the clouds.
To go on rounds with Dad was to discover the humanity in Medicine, and in him. Rounds showed me not what a doctor should be or could be, but what it was. To meet the patients was to view the profession through Dad’s eyes. Compassion, love, human touch. I grew up believing that this was Medicine. That this was a physician. Because in our family, it was.
Dad moved from St. Luke’s to group practice on the East Side of Cleveland. In high school, I worked Saturdays, answering the phones from 8 to 12. When patients arrived for their appointments, Dad hugged them as if greeting an old friend. “How are you?” he’d ask.
He put the emphasis on “you,” drawing it out for people he had known for years. The most special among them were the Italians his dad had delivered. Or the ones who started as his dad’s patients and became his own. They were family.
Working at the office could feel like working at a bakery. People were always bringing sweets. Danishes, strudel, coffee cake. In summer it was bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes from the garden. Years later, I would learn it was payment from patients who couldn’t afford an appointment.
I think of all the times I paid out of pocket at Dr. Sullivan’s, the insurance refusing to cover epilepsy. It cost $200 to get in the door. Where’s the humanity in that? With Dad as the barometer, it’s easy to see why my expectations were skewed. I thought all doctors were like him. In truth, no one was. He was the son of my grandfather, and there was no one like him.
Except his sons.