Fathers

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Re-post of a Father’s Day piece I wrote a few years ago:

Six years ago, on a Wednesday morning in October, I met a tobacco farmer who lived on the state line between Kentucky and Tennessee.  He was the first patient listed on my surgery clinic roster. Beside his name, two words described the reason for his visit.  He had pancreatic cancer.

I opened the door to his room and saw a tanned wiry man of 72 years old.  He spoke first and proclaimed to be the toughest patient in the hospital.  I introduced myself as his doctor and offered an extra firm handshake that quickly wilted under a half-century of wrapping tobacco.

Cancer of the pancreas strikes 30,000 patients a year and about the same number die each year from the disease.  Few statistics in medicine are more disheartening and none more humbling to a surgical oncologist.  A few days later, he and I entered the operative suite and left, together, after several hours of removing his tumor from a cast of nerves and vessels.  The next morning, it was he who extended his hand with the same hearty grip.

On one of his postoperative visits, he gave me a photograph.  It was taken a short time before his diagnosis and shows him standing in a field of tobacco with a young shirtless boy among broad green leaves, waist high.  Between them, as if posing for the camera, is a harnessed mule.  It is an ageless picture which captures him perfectly, a stoic and proud father.

We spent the next 18 months visiting in the clinic, talking mainly of planting tobacco or the upcoming harvest, trying not to focus on the very real possibility that his cancer could come back.  At the end of one check-up, he proudly presented a gift that I will always cherish.  It was a bundle of dark-fired tobacco leaves.  I smelled the bouquet and can still remember its rich aroma.  Not knowing what to do with it, I took it home in the black plastic bag and hung it in my garage.  Six months later, he died.

Recently, I went to the garage and removed the bag from its perch on a rusty nail. After six years, I expected to find the leaves moldy, decayed, or at least riddled by insects.  Upon opening the bag, I removed the bundle of leaves and found them perfectly preserved in a deep caramel sheen.  As I inhaled, I could see him there in the clinic again — his operation, his strength, his death.  And when I looked at the base, where the leaves were folded in a tight, coiled knot, I felt the grip of his strong hands enveloping mine.  They were the hands of a man who never had any children, because, as I would come to know, the boy in the picture was not his son, although he cared for him as one of his own. 

Along with their illness, each patient brings a gift.  Sometimes the gift is tangible, like the leaves in my garage.  Most often, however, it is a memory, apt to fade and be forgotten in the rush.  My patient’s gift had shown me to grasp the time left with a loved one.

I put the leaves down and called my father, an aging farmer with Parkinson’s disease. It was the thick of planting season and we talked of his health, of acres yet to be sown, of chances for rain.