“Love is the chain whereby to
bind a child to its parents.”
I think that I met him first. He had severe rheumatoid arthritis. He had consulted a couple of doctors for his condition. Maybe because he had many other medical problems; maybe because he had a knack for deciding on his own what treatment he would follow, he had not seen any improvement. I decided that in his case my role would be to listen and to provide information. He would make the choices.
We hit it off right away, meaning that he made a quick decision that he trusted me. His arthritis improved, and eventually completely disappeared. He kept coming to see me for his numerous medical issues.
His wife followed. Another long list of significant problems; another very determined soul who was not about to be told what to do. After my first visit with her I wondered how those two ever made a decision, and if they got along. Soon I had my answer: they began to schedule their appointments together. It was a sight to behold. A feisty, outspoken, opinionated couple who did not hesitate to point out flaws in each other’s reasoning.
Yet… They loved each other. There was this palpable undercurrent of unity, respect, and common purpose that I find so very unusual. No grudges were held. When a choice was made they stuck to it; if it didn’t turn out right an “I told you so” never came up. They were partners in the deepest, most consuming way. I looked forward to their appointments.
After a year or two I understood them, and their bond, much better. They had only one child, late in life. By the time that she got married they were in their early sixties. When she got pregnant they were overjoyed, only to have life’s harsh reality knock them with a stunning blow. Their son-in-law died in an accident before the grandchild was born.
They reacted quickly and efficiently. She retired from her job (he was already retired). They purchased the house next door to their daughter’s. They moved in: lock, stock, and barrel. They were there for their granddaughter’s birth, and they brought her home from the hospital to the two houses that would be this child’s source of warmth and security.
Every workday, early in the morning, they woke up and walked next door to help out. Their daughter went to work; they cared for baby Allie. They took her to the pediatrician, and later to parks, and movies, and picnics. On Sundays they went to church together. This baby grew up with the undivided attention of two very strong, educated, supremely loving and devoted adults who made her feel wanted.
They came into my life when Allie was two. Once I knew the whole story I understood what the basis of the common purpose and partnership I described earlier was. Of course they loved each other, and behind their disagreements there was an underpinning of admiration for what the other had accomplished. But this child; this amazing gift made things ever more solid.
Over the years I heard about Allie’s progress in between tending to their increasingly frequent (and complicated) issues. His diabetes was very hard to manage. There were blood pressure problems, and neuropathy, and back pains. She developed one cancer that required radical surgery, and she had her own serious back issues. I often wondered how they had the energy to be parents, but soon I realized that Allie was not a burden. She was the most soothing balm that they could have purchased to help.
Allie did so well in grade school that she earned a scholarship to one of our local elite private high schools. In a typical St. Louis turn of events (we are a large city, but sometimes it seems that everyone knows everybody else) it turned out that Allie’s best friend in her new school was my son’s friend in grade school. I got to hear about her from two sources.
My patients, now in their eighties, continued to decline. Allie flourished. I had to add to their list of medications, procedures, and dietary restrictions. Allie was a star student (among intense competition) and an excellent athlete. I heard through the grapevine, and later confirmed when I saw a photo, that she was tall, stately, and beautiful.
One day he came to the office as an urgent appointment. There were these new chest pains that were too bothersome to ignore. A number of tests followed. He had severe coronary heart disease. There were too many lesions to consider using stents. He would need surgery.
I sat down in his hospital room to give him the bad news. We were alone.
Tell me what you think.
“I knew this would come sooner or later, doc.” He smiled.
“I’m old enough. I’ve had a good life. Allie will finish high school in a few months; she’s already been accepted to a top ten program in her chosen field. I cashed some GE stock that I purchased for her when she was born; it should pay for all of her college. I don’t need to stay around any longer. No surgery for me.”
I remained quiet for a while. Everything that he said, as usual, made perfect sense. Yet I felt this pain; I was having a lot of trouble accepting this decision.
Another pause, this time longer. I studied his face. For the first time ever, I saw some regret in his look. I decided to do something I almost never do. I would push him to do it my way.
He looked surprised.
No way you’re leaving this hospital without an operation. Allie’s your granddaughter, but you’re also her father. You’ve put in a lot of time, effort, and money into her upbringing. She has done everything she can to make your investment worthwhile.
He continued to nod. I saw a glimmer of hope in his face.
You’re having this surgery. I will not hear otherwise. You’re getting a bypass; not only that: you’re going to do well, and you will be there front and center at that graduation. I’m asking the nurse to bring in the consent form right now!
He smiled. That was all the consent I needed.
He had extensive coronary surgery at 84. He left the hospital in four days; an excellent outcome even for a 50-year-old without diabetes. He got to attend Allie’s graduation, and he saw her dress up for prom. His wife died while Allie was in college. Allie delivered a stirring eulogy to this woman who had been a mother, a grandma, and a friend to her. I was there; I was moved to tears. He got to see Allie finish her professional degree. He died in his nineties.
Allie’s a successful professional in a major city. Her mom is justifiably bursting with pride.
I vowed to never, ever again do what I did the day that I pushed him into surgery. Sometimes I wonder what got into me. Maybe the devotion that I felt in the room when I dealt with that couple.