Sunday, June 15, 2014


My father started out life as an uncomplicated farm boy.  Uncomplicated is not the same as simple.  In fact the farm was an extremely complex place, one with rhythms and cycles of its own.  There was the annual cycle of spring and fall, of planting and of harvest.  And the longer cycles that represented the lives of the farm animals.  Later in life he would often speak of the quiet dignity of the horses and the clever loyalty of the farm dogs.

It was an old school farm, they still had a few of those horses in the 1920's. And they still spoke German three generations after their emigration.

But the modern world eventually came barreling down the dirt road in the form of a brand new school bus that took students to the nearby town.  My father did well there.  He was valedictorian of his high school class, and near as I can figure was the first of our tribe to attend college.  For sure he was the first to go further in his education, racing through medical school under a wartime program designed to turn out physicians for the armed forces.

Later while serving post war in Germany he dabbled with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, that being all the rage back then.  He even visited Vienna, and told me he once was "analyzed".  I suspect it was the whole Freudian, lay on the sofa kind of deal.  It makes for one of those great "could have beens", but I am by no means sure he would have been a good psychiatrist.  He had an abundance of empathy for people and their troubles, but being as I said a little uncomplicated I can't see how he would have been good at understanding the true dark places of the human heart.

We shall never know.  He came back from the service, did a little more training and followed the old school medicine track of that time.  He married a nurse, hung out a shingle as a Family Doctor, had a bunch of kids.

I am sure he was a good family doc.  In that day, and even today somewhat, it was rare that the patient actually needed a complex procedure or an exotic prescription.  More often, most often, they needed a good listener with common sense.

He threw himself completely into his practice, or perhaps it was that his practice dragged him in completely.  We boys saw him late, tired and sometimes not at all.  It was not until I went off to college that I had the revelation that normal dinner time was 5 or 6. Gee, I figured everyone sat down at about 8pm.

But I at least got to know him a little better over time.  Through some mixture of admiration and lack of imagination I followed in the paternal footsteps and became a family doctor myself.  So our conversations through my residency and early practice years were interesting ones.  I would tell him about the latest diagnostic technologies.  He had a genuine surprise and delight hearing about them, no doubt the same sentiments he had as a young lad on the farm seeing his first airplane or his first glimpse of a big city.

Nothing lasts forever.  My father practiced until he was 70 years old.  By then he had taken the logical step of joining a group as a part timer.  But they had a mandatory retirement age.

So one morning, medicine just stopped.  Or rather, it went on and left him behind.

He did not know what to do.  He kept a huge batch of journals and browsed them from time to time. He went to hospital staff meetings as an emeritus member, but eventually the city driving got too much for him.   He tried a few hobbies, joined a few groups and such but his heart was not in it.

Once my older brother and I took him on a fishing trip.  He seemed apathetic.  It was a lack luster experiment that we did not repeat.

But oddly enough, after his 80th birthday he started to get....happier.  It seems strange to say that dementia has a good side but in dad's case I think it does.  We no longer talk about medicine and I get the sense that he wants it that way.  He has forgotten the sense of loss.  He has forgotten the dark moments that we all have in our careers.  He no longer broods on the one time he got sued.  The many aggravations of trying to run a one man practice, all the vacations deferred, all the personnel decisions, all the insurance hassles....gone.

So distant when we were growing up, he now finds that visits from his children and grandchildren are his great joy in life. Although as his 90th birthday came and went he had more difficulty telling the grand kids apart, and spends more time snoozing on the sofa.   Yogi, a dim-witted dust mop of a dog, became his constant companion.  And if he is a poor substitute for the cleverness of the long ago farm dogs he makes up for it with his unquestioning loyalty.

The farm days were featured more and more in his conversations.  He was so happy there as a child, so eager to get out as a young man.  He went through a phase where the farm worried him a bit.  It was abandoned now, and there was discussion about what to do about it.  But after a while he no longer cared about that.

His memories of the farm became brighter, more vivid, complete with sights and sounds, and smells and a cast of characters.  And they went farther and farther back.

I recall one conversation where he was describing the experience of walking behind the plow (horse drawn I think) looking with fascination at the things unearthed.  Rocks, worms, the hope for an indian arrowhead.  It was the memory seen from age 90 of being perhaps 5 years old again.

And he was happy.  The cares and troubles of the adult world had all been set aside.   The cycle had run to completion and he was once again an uncomplicated farm boy.

I wrote that last year, at a time when Dad's health appeared to be failing fast.  But we are a durable bunch we children and grandchildren of the farm.  He is still with us this Father's Day, still snoozing on the sofa a lot of the time.  Still seeing the past more clearly than the present.

Or is he?

A couple of months back I visited and was telling him the family news.  "Hey, M____ and B____ (my son and his wife) are going to have........chickens."

I saw his eyes spark to life at the pause before the punch line.  Clearly he was one step ahead and was thinking he was about to become a great grandfather.  So, Happy Father's Day Dad.  If you are in fact smarter than you let on, well, it has always been that way.


wynne said...

Happy Fathers Day to you too Tim. I understand more about why you go when you can, to be with your dad. It's a meaningful connection for both of you, in. New and special way.

Honeybee said...

A very nice tribute. Thanks for sharing your story.