I was 13. He was 20, a cadet, at West Point.
My father no longer works for that corporation so it’s probably safe to say that I scrubbed with him and headed into the operating room, on not just this, but 3 other occasions. (A gallbladder. A thyroid. And something I can’t recall.)
To my father’s discomfort (and mine!), we arrived in surgery on that first occasion before the cadet had been fully prepped (and covered.)
I still remember the orange inky swab across his toned abdomen, his dark pubic hair, his penis, his testicles.
I looked across the operating table uncertain as to whether I was to feel clinical, embarrassed or curious.
This awkward father-daughter moment was offset by our masked attire and the work at hand.
“If you feel sick at any point, there’s a trash can,” my father said, nodding to the corner as he lifted the scalpel to the body.
I remained steady on my feet beside the anesthesiologist.
“Even I was woozy at my first surgery,” he later said, clearly impressed.
Outside the operating room, we removed our caps, and it was then that the assisting surgeon warmed to me.
“Kelly, I hadn’t realized it was you!” said the man who was our neighbor and my father’s best friend since their residency in Denver. “I thought your father was instructing a new nurse.”
I still remember what I learned that day: Tenderness on the right side and a low-grade fever—check for Appendicitis. White blood cell count up.
30 years later my father misdiagnosed my younger sister in the months after her wedding.
She almost died.
There is a saying about physicians and family. But it’s too convenient to receive medical care on the fly, and also the only way as a girl (or a grown up) to capture my father’s fleeting attention, so dependent is it on the extraordinary.
“The shoemaker’s daughter without any shoes,“ the school nurse said, when she reviewed my chart.
Something else I learned after my first penis: Avoid contact sports when diagnosed with Mononucleosis.
40 years after scrubbing for surgery, I returned, alone, to West Point, and felt the same ache when I passed the Lacrosse field where the cadet died.
Lethargy. Swollen lymph nodes. White blood cell count up. Enlarged spleen.
In my senior year, I would return to campus with my own case of Mono, which my father had missed like he had my broken arm–at age 4 and age 10. Even my grandfather missed the broken bones at 4. And my grandfather’s broken leg had been missed by my father.
Blind spots, they’re called.
Decades later my father insisted that he was the best in town, and while I didn’t doubt it, I drew the line when it came to my husband’s vasectomy. (Freudian slips and all.)
When as a teenager, new policy prevented me from continuing to accompany my father into the operating room, he brought me on staff at his office where I did intake–blood pressure and the like–and assisted him, after hours, with minor procedures when there wasn’t a nurse on hand or seved as female chaperone for a lumpectomy follow up; while I continued to accompany him on his weekend rounds, like I had my grandfather on housecalls .
“Come in with me on this one,” my father said, outside the ICU. “This kid is waking up and I have to tell him that by some miracle he’s alive.”
I stood across the bed as my father added a post script to the miracle,”You lost both your legs.”
When I relay this moment, others ask me what happened next, but I can’t recall a thing after that except adding–Avoid motorcycles–which was added to my growing catalog of ways to stay alive.
Roller coasters was on that list too, added a decade earlier, after a call came in to my grandfather from the amusement pier that I frequented with my cousins.
Wear your hair in a pony tail, I notated, or better yet, avoid whipping rides.
Just home from my freshman year in college, major yet undeclared, my father fired me in bed before sunrise after I refused to skip my shift at his office to help out with the mountains of laundry produced by 5 younger siblings.
“Why don’t you ever help with the laundry!” I said.
A month later he moved out.
No one noticed.
I regretted not going into medicine after that for a very long time. If for no other reason then to be beside him again, and to garner his attention and pride like I had when I didn’t need to vomit beside the operating table; And something else—to carry on the family legacy–my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great grandfather. All of whom neglected their families on behalf of others who needed them more.
“Did you want me to leave the guy on the operating table?” my father would say when he’d arrived hours late to pick me up from play practice. It was after midnight, and I was sitting alone on the steps outside the auditorium.
He often suggested a career in nursing as better suited to the obligations of my gender. At 18, he was digusted fo find that I did not know how to make him mash potatoes from scratch when my mother was no where to be found.
“If I ever go into medicine,” I said, “I’ll be a surgeon too,” so unwilling was I to be subservient like my mother for the rest of my life.
Later he made a point to introduce me to the one female physician who attended the cocktail parties that his new wife threw at the house they built on the water.
“She’s a doctor and a mom,” he said, at New Years and again at 4th of July, as if proclaiming a miracle.
The doctor and I smiled at each other uncertain as to what we were supposed to mean to one another.
But while I had a steady presence in the operating room, and even did a summer stint in pathology which was housed in the morgue, and worked for years as a Candy Striper on every floor, the call to medicine eluded me.
Or had it?
It could be said, and I have a growing hope that it will be said, that I wield the pen like my fathers before me wielded the knife.
And isn’t the carving of consciousness as far-reaching than the scalpel—healing not only the body in the here and now, but into the past and forward into the future–body, mind and soul–ancestors and progeny.
Only my work has never delivered vacations in Aspen, or houses on the water, or a hefty God complex.
And yet, curiously, the same advice might be true for both vocations:
Don’t treat your relatives.
Which is tricky with writing, or should I say: sticky.
The ink has a way of lifting their stories with mine.
And it’s no understatement that this exposure, despite any lofty intentions, isn’t as welcome as say a prescription for antibiotics or a line of stitches or even an unwelcome diagnosis.
No matter how arrogant and authoritarian and entitled, everyone takes pride (and relief) in having a doctor in the family, but no one is like:
My daughter, THE MEMOIRIST!