Dec 5, 2023


My father spent his working life as a small-town doctor in Arkansas, and the longest period of it in a clinic that was first owner-operated by the physicians themselves, and then sold, and then sold again, in the way we’ve all watched play out in healthcare over the last several decades.

But my dad was a general practitioner and the clinic was the biggest one around, so he saw everyone, for every reason, old-school style. We heard it all at dinner time: people with strange symptoms; times he had to bring his big football-player’s frame to remind folks not to be rude to the nurses; and most of all, people who were maybe a little sick but definitely sad. And he was doc all the time, which is the tacit contract for a clinician in a southern small town. We would go to the hardware store and see folks in the lumber aisle, my dad sweaty and covered in saw dust and preoccupied, and people would come up and say heeeyyyy doc, listen, my mother’s just been to see the cardiologist but I wanna know what you think… It would never have occurred to them to refrain, and he would never have done anything but talk it out. This still happens by phone. Second, third opinions way outside his medical ken. People just want the guy they know.

We needed more laughs at the dinner table, truth be told! Many more indeed. The pathos of the human condition needs levity and oxygen to make it bearable. But we have the parents we’re given (and denied), and the same is true of the children who call us parents. I am glad, gladder than ever, that my father could quiet his mind and manner in the face of other people’s messes. Especially the mix of sickness or sadness that arrives indiscriminately bundled. All these years later I go into rooms and introduce disability in all its forms, and when you do that, people tell you stories. Big stories. I am an imperfect listener, I’m sure. But my dad taught me to quiet my mind and body language, at least. To be unafraid and unsurprised.