Friday, October 14, 2011

Finding my Father

(This essay was first published in Connecticut Medicine, May 2011, in the section, "Physician as Essayist," under the title, "Losing my father's mind," as well as by the American Academy of Ophthalmology in the Scope Journal, September 2011).         

My father, Piero de Luise MD, at age 55
Anesthesiologist at
South Nassau Communities Hospital
Rockville Centre, New York, June 1975

    Everyone thinks that they know their parents and  I was sure I was no exception. I certainly knew my own father. Or did I?
My dad was this complex mix of the elements, of  fire and water.  He was born of two passionate parents, on the island of Ischia, a volcanic rock off the coast of Naples, Italy. No doubt that environment created an intensity in him, a burning curiosity for life and love and nature, especially for the sea; and right below that surface, there was always this volatility in my dad, how quickly he would enrage.
Dad was polyglot, fluent in Italian, English and Spanish, passable in French, and  he even spoke some Portuguese. As a man of his time, he also learned to converse in that erstwhile universal language, Esperanto 
He told me once that he became a physician not just out of a love of medicine as I had done, but more so that he could become a ship’s officer, sail the Mediterranean, and explore all those cultures that had for so long fascinated him – Malta and Crete, Sicily and all the far-flung Dodecanese Islands.
    I used to call him Babbo, Italian for Daddy, because that is what all Italian children call their fathers. But his real name, Piero, was so perfect for him, deriving from petros, the Greek word for "rock or stone."

Of course !  
Didn’t he love to hang around that rocky shoreline of his beloved island when he was a kid?  How often would he go spearfishing there, diving for spiny sea urchins that he would from underwater rocks bare-handed, and seamlessly scoop out their creamy insides, devouring them with relish.
    My father was a champion swimmer and prided himself on his ability to stay submerged in a pool - Houdini-like - once for two minutes -  to the utter fear, amazement and then  delight of his grandchildren.  He pretty much only ate fish, and stopped smoking on a dime the very day my older sister was born. Nicorettes  didn’t exist then; there was just his force of will.
    For someone who claimed not to have a love of healing, my Dad became a sought-after anesthesiologist.  His colleagues would call him to their operating rooms time and time again to perform the most difficult techniques in their specialty.  At his retirement party, the staff gave my father a gold chain, on which hung a charm in the shape of a laryngoscope, one of the instruments he used to do those tricky procedures. He wore that as a talisman around his neck for the rest of his life.
    So, my father was this many-splendored thing. He reminded me of that mythic hero Odysseus, whom Homer wrote about, the wily, crafty, but most remarkably, the multifaceted Ulysses!  

Yes. Multifaceted !  That was my Dad ! This complex crystal !  So, how could I possibly know someone so intricate and unique? How could I possibly really know my own father?
    And then it happened. It was September 17, 1998, my parents wedding anniversary, and my father was in his study writing a check. He suddenly called out for my mother. It seemed that he had forgotten how to sign his name. Mom was stunned, and quietly sobbed. She didn’t need a medical internship to know that Dad had the beginnings of Alzheimer Disease. Oh yes, of course, Dad went through the gauntlet – the internists, the neurologists, the psychiatrists– hoping for a diagnosis, any diagnosis, except Alzheimer Disease. But no. Slowly and inexorably, my father slipped into the clutches of that unspeakable and tragic condition. My mother and my sisters rallied to his aid, even as I pulled away, unable to bear that Dad, our Dad, my Dad, was losing his amazing and beautiful mind.
    I couldn’t deal with what was happening to my father, and I felt this gnawing guilt about all the chances I had lost over the years to know him better. How many times did my dad call me at home late at night, to talk about politics, American politics, Italian politics, and I had cut him off. How many weekends did I have something else to do with our kids or with friends, instead of driving down to Long Island to visit him. How many times did I tell him "Yes, Dad, I WILL go with you," on a trip back to Italy again, or to the Galapagos Islands, his favorite psychic spaces, and I never did. How many opportunities did I squander, precious moments to be with my Dad before he started to slip away and to. disappear?
    At first, my father railed against his disease. But with time, he gradually accepted it. At the rest home, as they were placing that bracelet on each patient’s wrist, he looked at his for a moment, and announced to me and Mom, “Alzheimer! That’s it ! That’s mine! ” I wept uncontrollably in front of them and his caretaker, whom I hardly knew.  Over the years, a long and excruciating decade of goodbyes, my Dad continued to fail, to dissolve away.  

Finally, with my father nothing more than this relic of a man, curled up into a little ball, clutching a stuffed monkey in his bed at home (since Mom had taken him back better to care for him there she said), and after a number of hospital admissions for pneumonia, our family requested hospice. And shortly thereafter, Dad died. Without any rage.  Peacefully.
    About a year after my father’s passing, on my fifty-eighth birthday, I and my family were on vacation in Palm Beach, celebrating at  this wonderful Italian restaurant there. As we were leaving and thanking the maitre d’,  he spotted a long-time customer of his, an elderly, well-dressed man, who was leaving at the same time. And for some inexplicable reason, the maître d’ decided to introduce us. The elderly man came over and asked me my name and where I grew up. And I told him – "Vincent de Luise, and on Long Island." He looked at me quizzically for a moment. Then suddenly, this wizened old gentleman, out of the wondrous mystery of the universe, seemed to be having a revelation. He brightened up, came close to me, and in a hushed voice, whispered in my ear, “Vincent, I knew your father very well. We were classmates in medical school right after the war.  You know, he was so proud to be a doctor."  And at that very moment, I realized that I did know my father very well.  Just a little too late

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision

1 comment:

  1. I love this, Vin - heard it first at the First Thursday workshop. It strikes a chord with me because my mother also had Alzheimers, and a beautiful mind and person faded away. Her personality was quiet, unassuming, yet utterly capable, intelligent, and of a giving and loving nature. A true Christian woman with great internal strength. Thank you for this wonderful memory! Bonnie