When I’m 54

Though I don’t care much about the transition to a new year, I was perfectly happy to put the 2010s behind me — a decade marked by the death of both of my parents, and the hardest of my caregiving years with Mom. In 2020, I thought, I could focus on looking forward rather than getting hung up on past sad events.

And then I got sick, on Jan. 2. And I couldn’t talk to Dad about it. Even as a middle-aged adult, I want to talk to Dad when I don’t feel good. That’s just how it has always been. In my case, having a physician for a Dad has meant talking to him about all kinds of ailments, whether they’re related to his specialty or not.

My sister Laura talking to Dad during our summer vacation in 2018. I believe they had some discussions about health, too.

What started as a cold morphed into an ear infection and then, after 10 days of antibiotics, I had an apparent recurrence of viral symptoms that still bother me somewhat to this day, more than four weeks since it all began. And I feel very sorry for myself. Missing Dad does not help.

I don’t know that I would have called Dad about this particular bout with bacteria. But I put something on Facebook about taking antibiotics; Dad, a daily Facebook user, would undoubtedly have checked in on my timeline to see how I was doing. And then probably would have again a few days later. (I am confident this would be the case because Dad makes frequent appearances in my Facebook memories, which is both wonderful and heartbreaking.) Being sick has also meant for most of my adult life that I should stay away from Dad because, because he was a transplant patient, his immune system was suppressed. He spent one whole winter several years back fighting what he suspected was whooping cough. So minimizing his exposure to germs was important.

This has evoked many childhood memories of my various illnesses and accidents. Poor Dad was called in for doctor duty even though we didn’t live with him after my parents divorced. When I was very young and fell on my face in a neighbor’s driveway, he took me to University Hospital at Ohio State to get stitches in my forehead. When the wound had healed, he came over to remove my stitches as I lay draped across his lap in a chair. I was squirmy and did not make it easy for him. He visited when I got chickenpox, and he identified the reason my throat was so sore, which was an abnormal symptom: I had a chickenpox blister on my uvula.

I had multiple cases of tonsillitis as a kid, and as a result my tonsils are enormous. I wanted to have them removed but Dad said no. “They’re there for a reason.”

In eighth grade, I had an astounding total-body case of poison ivy. To this day, I don’t know how I got it, but my body responded as if I had rolled in it. My face was in full crust mode by the time Dad came by to examine me. “You look like the Incredible Hulk,” he said. I cried, being an unrecognizable 13-year-old girl who itched from head to toe, and was therefore very sensitive. He took me to a dermatologist colleague’s house after work on that occasion, and we left with a prescription for a tapered dose of steroids that cleared me up quickly.

I have small veins like Dad did, so blood draws can be complicated. In high school, I helped organize a blood drive. Near its conclusion, I sat down to make my first blood donation. The Red Cross staff could not find a good vein — though not for lack of trying, by poking me in the arm repeatedly. I was embarrassed, sore and upset, and that failure was so memorable that I have never tried since to give blood. I got mono later that year. Dad took me to the hospital to confirm the diagnosis, and I told the phlebotomist she’d have a hard time drawing my blood. She rolled her eyes and got the sample she needed on the first try. I’ve always been thankful to Dad for taking me to her.

Most recently, in 2018, he talked to Patrick and me through our cases of influenza — my mild case, thanks to my annual flu shot, and Patrick’s lengthier case that involved taking Tamiflu. And Dad, a gastroenterologist, was the obvious go-to when Patrick had diverticulitis. They had a couple of marathon phone sessions talking about symptoms and treatment options.

As I blogged about Mom, I was often frustrated that I didn’t have very strong memories of my day-to-day life growing up, and that many of my memories related to negative events. Similarly, memories of my weekly visits, along with Jeff and Laura, with Dad after our parents divorced are not vivid. But the memories I do have about my encounters with him during my childhood are much more likely to be positive, even if they revolved around being sick. My guess is the value of having his attention increased dramatically after he no longer lived with us. In fact, I have no memories of our family life — or of any part of my life — before he moved out, save for a select few isolated events — like how my neighbor friends made fun of me for walking around shirtless when I was about 4, trying to be like a boy.

I should have known that the start of a new decade wouldn’t make one bit of difference in how I think about my life. The past is important — especially as I age and try to draw on lessons I’ve learned, or remind myself of problems I have solved, or take pride in what I’ve accomplished personally and professionally. And, most important of all, as I remember my parents, and others, who are gone, with the benefit of wisdom and gratitude that comes with the passage of time.

2 comments so far

  1. Laura on

    I have similar childhood memories of Dad, and I really miss talking to him about medical issues both personal and general. I love the photo. Don’t think I’ve seen it before. Great piece, Emily❤️

  2. momsbrain on

    Thank you, Laura!

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