Schwab: Finding graditude, inspiration from father I never knew

I followed the career path of my father who died before my birth, work that now might have saved him.

By Sid Schwab / Herald columnist

This column was sent in the day before Thanksgiving, appearing now the day after. Because we’ll have spent it on the Oregon coast with our son’s family, including two much-loved grandkids, I’ll assume we had a wonderful time. So, rather than harshing the mallows on the sweet potatoes by addressing the approaching hellscape we face as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, I’ll revisit something I wrote on another Thanksgiving, from our former family home at Cannon Beach. The politics can wait. Here’s what I wrote:

Ten days before I was born, my father died. Three years earlier, my mom had been a 21-year-old bride, excited and optimistic, proud of marrying the brilliant young physician whose given name I bear, and whose family name is my middle. I know he was brilliant because over the years I’ve heard it from many of his former colleagues and patients, and because when he married he’d just finished his term as chief medical resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At that time, the position was highly selective and much sought: the plumbest of prestigious plumbs. We’re at our family home on the Oregon coast, where my wife and I have been exploring the contents of a trunk hiding in plain sight for many years. In it we found my mom’s first bridal book (she married my adoptive dad when I was young enough that I have no real recollection of being fatherless. Their marriage lasted 60 years, till death did they part.)

Seeing these mementos for the first time is haunting, knowing the ending: all the happiness, the smiling people, the florid and joy-filled notes vouching their certainty of the couple’s blessed future. Lists of gifts, with check-marks after each, denoting timely acknowledgment. Dozens of telegrams; congratulations and love. Stop. A dime store booth photo of the happy couple; a picture from the “society section” of the paper, showing Mom in a flowing gown, wearing a bonnet made from her mother-in-law’s wedding dress.

Perfectly preserved, there’s an announcement of the opening of my father’s office in the Medical Arts Building — still standing in downtown Portland — for the practice of Internal Medicine and Diagnosis, under which, in my mom’s hand, is the breathless exclamation “the first of these went to me!!” It’s easy to relate to the nervous excitement of opening a medical office after all those years of study. But I know how the story turns out. When I applied to college I indicated “pre-law” as my probable direction, but when I got to Amherst I took all the pre-med courses I’d need, just in case. During my first summer back home, my mom brought out a box of letters and cards she’d gotten when my father died. They were from friends, colleagues and patients, all with the same sentiments: a tragic loss, a brilliant career cut short, a young widow with two babies (my brother, a year-and-a-half at the time). And the continuity of life: his death, my birth. That box, I think, had much to do with my eventual decision in favor of a career in medicine. The outlier in a family of lawyers: dad, brother, aunt, uncle. My father died after an operation for hyperthyroidism. Feared and frequently fatal in those days, postoperative “thyroid storm” is virtually unknown now with the advent of greater understanding and better drugs. I’ve done that operation many times. Here’s how I described my first, in a book I wrote about my training days:

“I’d given no thought to the factors that made me choose medicine, and then surgery, and then the kind that did thyroid operations, until I found myself doing the very operation that had killed my father, having made the simple preparations that would have saved him. As I entered the OR, I wondered: would it be a B-movie moment, a zoom-in on my sweaty brow as I froze up, the nurse asking, ‘Is something wrong, doctor?’

“It didn’t happen. The operation flowed. Had it been a way of meeting the man I never knew, who never knew me? Of symbolically saving his life, while the quest saved my own? A meeting of souls in the ether, as it were? I’ve thought about it since then. I like the idea, but I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

“It’s possible, it turns out, to miss someone you’ve never known. I wish I had. I wish he’d seen me as a doctor; I miss talking with him about it. The last thing my mom remembers hearing from him, as he went off to surgery, is ‘You look really cute. I think I’ll keep you pregnant all the time.’”

Still and all, and not withstanding MTG’s ascent, I have much to be thankful for. Especially those grandkids.

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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