I can recall both of my father’s medical offices. The first was an odd concrete or even cinderblock structure on our little town’s main street. It had a small lawn in front. The rooms, for examination and waiting and lab work, stretched back along a corridor. The linoleum was old and scratched. My father occupied the place until I was about nine years old. Then he purchased a house, a big old place, more spacious, remodeled into something much more light and modern. After his divorce, he lived upstairs in the same building, now with me and my brother. Such an arrangement had been in his mind all along, he told me later. He had seen the marriage failing, apparently, and this was the response.
In the bigger, remodeled place, my father’s own personal office became more spacious and its qualities more pronounced. Perhaps it was because I was older that the feel of the room entered into me. There was a thick Persian carpet on the floor. A large mahogany desk. A leather swivel chair. Was all this de rigueur for doctors in that era? I haven’t a clue. I haven’t many details either. Though even then I was seeking them. Why was there a small white horse in one of my father’s desk drawer compartments? He had won a bet, he told me. And the prize was a bottle of White Horse whiskey. It was from years before, this wager. Certainly pre-California. At stake in this bet had been something medical, a diagnosis, I am almost positive. My father liked to be right. And this was a success. But an old one, 10 or 15 or even 20 years in the past. I understand better now that he was not a very secure guy, my father. And there it was, evidence of his win, sitting in a compartment next to paperclips, a story he didn’t even bother explaining to a little boy. The complexity may have been a bit much for a 10-year-old. And the significance? That may have been a bit much for my father’s own understanding. Or perhaps he needed to keep it bottled, like the whiskey.
A round, etched glass paperweight sat on one corner of the desk. It had to be held, examined, raised to the level of the window light. With illumination from behind, the glass revealed a red and white depiction of neoclassical buildings. The thick glass gave depth to the picture. Of what? One of my father’s campuses. Perhaps Jefferson Medical School. To a boy, such details only detracted from the experience. It was an numinous object, the ancient buildings another world, all of it possible to hold in a hand. And such weight. A thing of substance and mystery, its 3-D picture visible at some angles, not at others.
The diplomas in their frames were quite boring, except for the script. Old lettering, some of it ornate, with an embossed seal at the corner. Also three-dimensional, not to exclude the small ribbons that dangled near the bottom. Adult stuff. And then the picture, aside from a landscape or two, the framed line drawing or etching.
An artist painted at an easel, staring into space as though for inspiration, while someone very determined stood just behind playing the violin. Death, my father explained, was fiddling while the artist…. Well, he seemed to be waiting for something. I did not understand, not really. The artist might have been saying to himself…what is that? Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing? As for Death, why was he bothering? What did he care whether the artist heard him or not? Puzzling questions whose answers are no clearer today. Just entering into such speculations has its own effect. So why not start early, say around 10 years old?
It is nice to have an office full of heavy old things. Such objects have soul. As for Death, yes, there is wisdom in such a reminder. Even in the German romantic version, hokey and pedantic. Still, there was something oppressive and burdensome about my father and his office. Though nothing complicated. He was alone, isolated. He was too conscious of mortality to thrive in such loneliness. An office full of traditional objects, the time-bound roots of everything visible and tangible. All this in an arid little town at the edge of the desert. The past empty. No friends, family distant. Why was he there? How did my father wind up homeless? When I consider his circumstances, his emotional ones, he might as well have been out on the streets pushing a shopping cart.
As for me, now it seems important to acknowledge the early and somber weight of my father’s world. Surely, I began by shouldering it myself, like it or not. But now, it is easier to sense the difference between my father’s life and my own. He had an adult’s legacy of consciousness, but he also had a child’s grasp of relationships. My father needed human connection. When it failed, he grew embittered and isolated. Something in him had never grown. He died young, my father. In every sense of the word. Younger than I.
My father’s office needed more light. Were the drapes open? Enough windows? No, this wasn’t the problem. There weren’t enough people. Marlou did not die this way. She had great pain, but she had connection. My father’s death? Much lonelier. He seemed to have withdrawn from life before life withdrew from him. My mother’s? Also lonely. Ashamed of her failing mind, she kept up a certain front. Which became a barrier to others. She faced an ordeal which could not be confronted or discussed. In the end, life’s end, it doesn’t matter, I suppose. Until then, the mysterious end, things are less a mystery.