A Ghostly Father Sets Off a Cascade of Memories

On ‘Being Mortal’

On my father’s last Christmas, in 2014, I got him a book that it turned out he already had. When I asked if I could exchange it for something he wanted, he named a new title he’d just read about, Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.”

Photo

Charles Shaw Robinson and Maria Dizzia as father and daughter in Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice.”

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

For my dad, a retired doctor being slowly killed by Parkinson’s disease, this was a perfect match: a physician author’s book about dying, and about what makes a worthwhile existence even as your life is coming to a close.

My dad loved “Being Mortal,” and urged me to read it. I stayed away from it as if it were kryptonite. Never did it occur to me that it might tell me something about my father’s experience that would be valuable to know while he was still here — that I would regret not knowing when he was gone.

It was only a few weeks ago, after I realized that the paperback was staring me down every time I popped into my favorite bookstore, that I finally screwed up my courage, got a copy for myself and dived in. It was slow going, mainly because of the flashbacks. They were most powerful where Dr. Gawande writes about the excruciating decline of his own father, also a doctor, who was taken aback, just as my dad was, when his body turned on him.

I hear my father’s voice in my head all the time. In any number of situations, I know exactly what he would say, which (possibly off-color) joke he would crack. But all the questions that “Being Mortal” sparked in me — I don’t know what he’d have answered to them. I completely blew my chance to ask.

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