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Medical Humanities

18 Things I Know About My Father (with respect to Louise Aronson)

Gabriel Edwards


March 6, 2015

1. He was born in October to a father who was in the army working as an attaché to Chiang-Kai-Shek, a mother who had once worked as a stenographer but was now a homemaker, and a sister five years his senior.  The city was Nanjing, China and the year was 1948.  As the communist forces advanced the following year, the family returned to their home in California.


2. When he was in middle school, a recording error in one of his heat times at a swim meet inadvertently qualified him for nationals where he was literally and figuratively blown out of the water by the competition.  In high school he began swimming varsity in a pool – several times larger than an Olympic pool and filled with seawater from the Pacific Ocean – in San Francisco, right off of Ocean Beach.  The pool’s name was Fleishhacker.


3. In high school, he went on a date with a girl to see the film version of The Sound of Music which came out in theaters on March 2, 1965.  He was nervous enough about the date to throw up in the gutter outside the theater.  He was 16 years old. 

4. When he arrived at West Point for basic training in the summer of 1966, he realized he had made a mistake.  He wanted to leave, but a school psychologist told his father, the colonel, that if he did he would never amount to anything.  My father left anyway.  It was late summer; fortunately, he still had an acceptance from the University of California, Davis and was able to matriculate there. He thus was spared deployment to Vietnam.

5. He majored in philosophy in college, but midway through his junior year he decided that he wanted to go to medical school.  He finished his pre-med coursework at Berkeley where the same girl with whom he had seen The Sound of Music was studying.  He proposed to her on the plaza outside Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley hills, overlooking the Golden Gate.  He married her on the day before the summer solstice in 1971, at the age of 22.


6. One of his gross anatomy lab partners at the University of Southern California School Of Medicine was squeamish about cutting, so he and the other lab partners covered for her.  She came from a wealthy family and when the course ended, she took them out to dinner, her treat.  When it was time to order wine, my father was not sure what to select.  The first wine that popped into his head was one that James Bond had consumed in one of his books, a Bordeaux.  That glass of 1964 Chateau Lafite Rothschild began my father’s love affair with wine.

7. Right before beginning his nephrology fellowship, my father found a house and bought it unilaterally.  It was green on both the outside and the inside.  When his wife saw it, she became upset, so she went out and bought paint.  The walls then became white.


8. 1980 marked the year that he finished his training and became a new father.  He re-entered the service as an officer and a nephrologist.  He was given the choice between moving to Augusta, Georgia or El Paso, Texas.  He moved his wife and new son to Augusta, settling into a house he chose with his wife in a suburb called Martinez (locally pronounced Mar-ti-NEZ).  It was there his second son was born on a spring day in late March, 1982.


9. By 1983 he returned to California where both he and his wife had grown up.  He left the army for good and became a civilian doctor, working at Kaiser Walnut Creek.  The work plus the commute made the hours away from home long, so he often came home bearing presents for his young sons.  He drove a Mazda RX-7, and in the spring he would drive it up to the wine country to wait outside the wineries as they released what they had produced that year.  He totaled that car one rainy day travelling down O’Shaughnessy Boulevard towards the Glen Park neighborhood in San Francisco.  He was unhurt.


10. He was at work in Walnut Creek when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck on October 17, 1989.  It was his 41st birthday.  He drove home through Marin County instead of through Oakland because a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed.  On the Golden Gate Bridge he saw a darkened city against a darkening sky. The main source of light was coming from the Marina District at the north end of town where a section of a city block had sunk into the liquefied earth and caught fire.


11. He traveled to Israel in 1997. Standing on a slope of large rocks overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, he suddenly felt unsure about his balance.  He slowly groped his way back to the street, using both his hands and his feet.

12. When he noticed that his gait and handwriting had also started to change, my father surmised that he had developed Parkinson’s disease.  The neurologist he consulted confirmed this diagnosis.  He was 48 years old.


13.  Through strength of will and his good training, he continued to practice medicine until 2003, when he retired at the age of 54.  For the first time in memory, he took an afternoon nap, and then began the task of adjusting to his new life.


14. Some of the retirement occupations he considered were continuing to work in the hospital as a palliative care consultant, or leading groups on wine tours through Sonoma and Napa Valley.  Neither of those plans was realized.


15.  He did, however, travel to China for the first time since he had left as an infant in early 1949, right before the Communist forces captured the country.  It was 1998, just shy of his 50th birthday.  The Chinese had started becoming tourists in their own country. All the sites he traveled to were mobbed.  


16.  By 2006, his disease had progressed to the point where his cognitive reserve could no longer compensate.  He was becoming confused, and could no longer do the things he used to enjoy.   


17. He moved into a dementia care facility in 2010.  He spent his time wheeling around other residents in their wheelchairs, and wrote them prescriptions on scraps of paper.  The staff called him “Doctor”.


18. Right after lunch on a brilliant blue day in April, he passed away peacefully in his chair.  The new vintage was being released by the vineyards that surround San Francisco to the north, south, and east.  To the west stretched the waters of the Pacific Ocean, where he used to swim growing up.  He was talking about his wife and two sons.  He was 61 years old.


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