Thursday, June 5, 2014

His Final Breath

The invitation was a Father's Day special that read, "What did your father teach you or how did he inspire you with regard to medicine?"

It would have been much easier had it been, "What did the Old Man have to say about the Big Slab (biker slang for the interstate)?" Then I could respond, in my best gravely ZZ Top growl, "He had me on a Hogg before I could walk. Why, he and mom almost named me 'Harley,' you know, as in Don Henry's song, Harley?"

There was a motorcycle mama and her man
With a wind-burnt tan and a Harley
Roarin' through Bakersfield when her water broke
They pulled into a hospital and for a little joke

They named him Harley
They bought a sidecar
And a small bandanna band
And they loved their Harley

Leaning closer and jutting out my long ZZ Top beard, I'd look at you over the tops of my Ray-Ban sunglasses and whisper with mock menace, "You do know Don Henry --  don'tcha?" 

But, that wasn't the question and my father never owned a Hogg or any other kind of motorcycle, much to my distress as an adventure-seeking teenager. Much to his relief, I might add.

Nope, my father didn't teach me a thing about motorcycles except I could get killed riding one. I came close one Fourth of July weekend, racing my uncle's beat-up Vespa scooter round his property as fast as first gear would take me. A patch of soft soil brought an end to my dirt bike career. They say speed kills, but in my case, it just knocked me out. No, I wasn't wearing a helmet -- in those days we didn't worry about head injuries quite so much and besides, my uncle didn't have one, anyway.

Dad did teach me a great deal about horses, though, mostly how to love them like your best friends. For a tough guy -- not a gruff guy -- he had a soft spot for horses. I remember the night he woke me up and led my mother and I out to the barn where we watched a baby colt being born. It was my first "childbirth." There was poetry in his relationship with horses and he taught me how to write my own over the years.  

He also taught me a lot about hard work, accepting responsibility, taking risks, and following your heart, all of which he exemplified regularly. It's been sad that he didn't live to see me through medical school. I would have dearly loved to share the folly and fun of my daily efforts to become a physician with him. Some of the situations I managed to get myself into would have had him laughing until he cried. Others wishing he could board a plane, despite his illness, to stand alongside his son when he experienced hard times.

If my father taught me anything about medicine, apart from how to "doctor" horse injuries. it was that I never knew as much as I thought I did. People will surprise you. His own life-long struggle with chronic pain resulting from a back injury at age 19, made him a model of endurance that earned the admiration of his physician. He worked through pain that would have laid me out and did it every day. His determination to wave off the beating wings of the death angel until his final heartbeat was a testimony to his disbelief in the word, "quit." 

So, what did he teach me? Where do I start? He taught me everything worth knowing and then some. He taught me about his fallibility, his fears, and to accept and overcome my own. He taught me to tolerate what I couldn't change and change whatever I could. He taught me how to face the worst life has to offer by going through it with me until I was ready to go through it alone. 

And that's when he took his final breath.

Happy Father's Day. 

(Creative Commons image of Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top by Filipe Neves via Flickr; "Harley" words and music by Don Henry who owns the copyright)

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