I am sitting in a hospital room in Birmingham, Alabama. My 87-year-old father lies in a bed, frail, thin, and weak. This once physically strong and imposing man is a shell of who he was, of who he will always be in my mind – a larger-than-life Ranger infantry officer. A man who served two combat tours in Vietnam – my hero. I, too, wanted to be like him. That is why I chose to go to West Point. My father is the single most influential person in my life.
The “naturalness” of his dying is slowly progressing. I understand this. It is very hard to watch and I can do nothing about it. He cannot walk. He cannot even stand alone with a 4-point walker. He can no longer do the 100 push-ups and 100 bar dips that was his daily norm to the age of 80. The façade of immortality is gone. My heart breaks and I grieve.
He grieves as well. The realization that he may never walk again nor return to his home, work on his beloved cars, or build another remote control plane, begins to set in. What can you say and do in times like this? As the only doctor in the family, they look to me for answers to questions and help with decisions. At times, I feel resentful as I want to be his son, not his doctor, but most of the time I am grateful I can help.
Out of this comes an unexpected blessing – an opportunity to have a special one-on-one time with him. We talk about anything and everything. I learned things about him I never knew. He spoke of the hardships growing up in the Great Depression; of, as a five-year-old, walking 5 miles to the nearby airport to watch the biplanes take off and land. Occasionally he would be paid five cents to sweep the hangar floors. With that, he would buy a Coke and “nurse” it throughout the day. If he was really lucky, he could get a Moon Pie with it! He talked about how his mother would make fruitcakes in September, wrap them in cheesecloth, and keep them on top of the icebox until Christmas. To this day, he loves fruitcakes! What surprised me most was how close I came to losing my father in combat during his two tours in Vietnam. God’s protection was readily apparent. I sat there amazed, humbled, and thankful.
Sadly, it often takes an unpleasant event to bring people together so these stories can be shared. As physicians, patients will reach out to us in their time of grief, pain, or fear. They, too, need someone to hear their stories. We become that someone and in doing so we acknowledge their humanity. We ultimately become their storytellers and they become a part of who we are as a person, as a human being, who one day will face our own mortality and need someone to listen to our stories.
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