On Service and Tribute

So my father died in October.  I haven’t posted here since then.
He was a doctor, and had his general practice in Scarborough for 51 years, taking care of four generations of patients.  He kept his black medical bag in the trunks of successive Chryslers over the decades, for his house calls to his elderly patients.

To me, he embodied the goodness, simplicity, and truth that Tolstoy identified as the prerequisites for greatness.

He gave me many things, and he hoped – like every father must – that I would grow to share in his hobbies and passions.  I’m grateful for the interests that we did share, including an interest in history and politics that formed the basis of hundreds of dinner-table conversations.  I regret – as many sons must – the times when inclination limited my enthusiasm for his other passions, particularly for cars, airplanes, and boats.

But what he did manage to instill in me was his passion for his work – as a Scarborough family doctor, as an assessor of other Ontario doctors, and as an officer in the Air Force Medical Reserves.  He also passed along to me his pride in his career, which he contentedly recognized as essential to his character.  He never got to enjoy retirement (working up until he was too sick to continue do so), but I don’t know if he would have been able to enjoy retirement, anyway – I kept joking that if he retired, he’d end up wandering around the house in a white lab coat, giving repeated physicals to his family members and anybody else who was unlucky enough to knock on the door.

The circumstances of his death were difficult.  Diagnosed with advanced leukaemia in August (after having been diagnosed with Myelodysplasia the year before), he opted – as many doctors do – against aggressive treatment, and chose instead to receive palliative care at home.  That choice turned me, my mother, and my sister into care providers, as my parents’ house began to look more and more like a hospital with every passing week.

And if it takes a village to raise a child, I now realize that it also takes a surprisingly large community to bury an adult.  A cohort of doctors, nurses, and support workers became common presences in our house, and familiar faces in different medical facilities.

So permit me here to acknowledge a debt that I cannot repay: To the doctors and attendants at the Odette Centre for Cancer Treatment in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, as well as the hospital’s oncology, nursing, and Blood Services staff.  To the doctors and administrative staff at Mount Sinai’s Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care.  To the nursing and administrative staff of Saint Elizabeth Health Care.  To the administrators, home- and support-care workers at Spectrum Health Care; and to the helpful and friendly workers at Medigas and KCI Medical Canada.  And, ultimately, to the kind individuals at Benjamin’s Funeral Home and Holy Blossom Temple.

I was unfailingly impressed by all of their professionalism, but even more by their incredible generosity of spirit.  From a doctor in a hospital who personally tracked me down, to return the laptop that I had misplaced; to a tow truck driver who bought me a much-needed cup of tea after I had stood for 30 minutes in a rainstorm; to a blessed individual who found a way to ‘accidentally’ give me access to an essential telephone number – all of these people reminded me that professionalism exceeds itself, by somehow moving beyond mere profession and into the essence of that which connects us as a community.

And in the end, the experience of my father’s illness and death ended up reinforcing one of the biggest lessons that he had taught me through his 53 years of practice: That our work is a cause for pride because it is rooted in our collective value within our communities.  The value we ascribe to our labour is ultimately a recognition of our own importance, and of (or ‘in terms of’) the importance of those whom our labour benefits.  Work is by no means the only way of reinforcing social and ethical relationships – it’s probably not even the best way – but it is one way, and is therefore an honourable one.

A good man now rests from his labour, and leaves his accomplishments as the legacy of which he was so very proud.  To pay tribute to him is to pay tribute to that which he accomplished.  That, in turn, is to pay tribute to those to whom he devoted his attention: His patients, the community of Scarborough, the doctors and people of Ontario, the Air Force servicemen, and the citizens they serve, in turn.

To pay tribute to him is also to recognize the value of the work we all do, and the people whom we serve.  We affirm their value, and, in so doing, recognize our own.

And that, I believe, is a legacy worthy of the man.

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