15 February, 2014

Celebration of Life: Amy's Reflection on a Father's Love

One of the Really Important Things that my father taught me - along with a strong handshake - was how to make good eye contact while speaking in public, but you'll have to forgive me today because I don't think I can do both this time.

There are so many things I would like to share about my father, that I would like to say to my father, if he is listening somewhere, and most importantly that I would like to make sure my son remembers and tells his grandchildren, long after I’m gone.

I’d like to tell Finn about his patience, his empathy, his intelligence, his wit, his humility, his integrity… But I think there are others who will speak to those today, and speak more eloquently, so I just want to talk about his love.

Last summer, I was on call. While I’m on call, I often sit in front of my laptop, with our electronic medical record system open, my phone glued to my ear, and iMessage on so I can simultaneously text everyone I’m working with as I make decisions and refer patients in.

I was multitasking like this when my father text-messaged me to say good-night. It popped up on my screen and I typed “good-night kiss kiss love you lots xoxo” – wouldn’t want to under-do it - and hit “return.” But I was in the wrong window, so I actually sent the message to my attending physician. The next morning, we were laughing about it, and to paraphrase my attending's response, he wondered what he needed to do to raise his teenage daughter to be a 31-year-old who still wanted to say “I love you” before she went to sleep at night.

I told him to just love her back.

When I was six, my dad decided to teach me to play his guitar. I consider it mostly a success since I still play the piano. When I wrapped my little fingers around the too-big-for-me guitar, he told me how, when he was in college, he always dreamed about having a little girl whom he could teach this to.

It took me 15 years to realize that no 20-year-old in the whole history of Greek life at American universities has ever dreamed about playing the guitar with his daughter.

But my father loved us so unconditionally that I could not imagine a time – even before my existence – when he did not. It seemed that eternal, even to a six-year-old.

Between college and medical school, I spent a lot of time drinking coffee and doing nothing in various European countries. I went to Milan and stayed with our friend Tonia, who was my dad’s interpreter during a college trip to Italy. She told me that the most beautiful act of love she ever witnessed was my mother taking care of my father.

After I was done doing nothing, I traveled with my dad for a few weeks, while he explored the history of psychology. I was handy – in that I was capable of asking for directions in French while half-asleep and lost in Normandy and transliterating Cyrillic epitaphs in St. Petersburg – I’m still not sure how he planned to find Pavlov’s tombstone without me – and willing to order for us in German restaurants even though I don’t actually speak any German.

But my best memories of that trip are the stories that my father told about his love for my mom. We ate lunch in Arcetri, across the street from Galileo’s house, and my dad teared up talking about how proud he was that my mom had finished her master’s degree. He told me how he hovered around the college, asking her mentor over and over if she was ready to date again yet. He talked about their first date and how she told him about her cousins’ new boutique selling jeans and how he was struck by how beautiful her dark brown eyes looked when she was passionate about something, even if it was 1970s-style jeans.

A few countries later, we were sitting at a sidewalk café in Oslo, and he asked me if the women on the street were beautiful. He said, “Objectively, I know they’re supposed to be, but it’s just been so long since I’ve ever looked at anyone except your mother.” Since I was 21 and single, I just shrugged and went back to enjoying all the tall, blond, beautiful Nordic men walking by our table.

He also told me about the day he learned that my mom’s first husband had died from Hodgkin’s disease, which my dad had also had when he was in college. He said that he was thinking about proposing to her, but he thought, “No one in their right mind would sign up for that kind of grief again.” But my sister and I are thankful she did.

When my son Finn was born, I wrote to him, “Our love for you knows no limits and no bounds. It is infinite and eternal, as perfect as we are imperfect. My grandfather loved my father, your grandfather, in the same way. So did my grandparents Peter and Ida love my mother, your grandmother. I hope, if you are ever scared or lonely, you can imagine it the way I have, as an endless, unbroken thread of love running back through the generations of our family. I promise, it will give you strength when you need it most.”

January of this year was the 44th anniversary of my father’s cancer diagnosis. Most of his health problems can be traced back to his cancer treatment.

In my relatively short medical career, I have given a lot of people the worst news of their lives. I tell people that their children have cancer. Most of the time, the best and hardest part of my job is trying to help them understand that there is a tomorrow, that this is not the end of the story. Sooner or later, I tell almost everyone about my dad.

And I know they have heard his story as one about hope and faith and strength, and in hearing it, that they have found the hope and faith and strength, in themselves, to believe that their children will grow up and finish school and fall in love and raise children, like me and my sister, who will grow up and have their own families. So even though all stories end, my dad’s story, to me, is ultimately a story of hope, of always seeing the beauty of the brightest star in the darkest sky, and it’s is not one that I will ever stop telling. For me, it’s a gift that I get to keep giving, for the rest of my life.

There is a quote I really like, from a book called The Fault in Our Stars, which you should all, of course, go home and read. It reads, in part:

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's 0.1 and 0.12 and 0.112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for him than he got. But, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.”

I certainly wanted my father to have more numbers than he got, but the best thing he taught me was how to make a forever out of our numbered days.

I want to read an excerpt from a Mary Oliver poem, called In Blackwater Woods. In the last few years, I have spent quite a lot of time - more than I can say - trying to make my own peace with the fact that all of our days are, ultimately, numbered, and I have shared this poem with a lot of friends who were grieving, so I’m more than a little relieved to find out that it actually is a bit comforting. Just a little bit.

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, whom my father held in very great regard. We were both proud graduates of Mr. Jefferson’s University, and I feel like he'd be disappointed if I did not.

“But those 20 years alas! where are they? With those beyond the flood. Our next meeting must then be in the country to which they have flown, a country, for us, not now very distant. For this journey we shall need neither gold nor silver in our purse, nor scrip, nor coats, nor staves. Nor is the provision for it more easy than the preparation has been kind. Nothing proves more than this that the being who presides over the world is essentially benevolent.”