What I Never Really Understood About My Father

If you know me at all, you know that my father was not only a doctor of medicine, but a surgeon. I am the first to give this information out. Pride for sure directs this pronouncement, but also because the title was who he was to the world around me. His hands had that careful attention, that steady strength, a surety that I and his patients could rely on. His journey to achieve his professional status was a place of pride too. I grew up hearing stories of how his family all worked together to fund his college education, his long hours of study that earned him scholarships to medical school, his dedication to master his craft: all of it rolled into that one title added to his name, Doctor Donovan. There were odd days here or there when I’d accompany him on hospital rounds or visit him in his office at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, but regardless of everything I thought I knew about what his professional responsibilities were, last Friday afternoon it struck me, I knew nothing.

You see I called him Dad. There were plenty of us who called him that. Compared to other Irish Catholic families, we were a modest six, but we made up for our small number by being a wayward and wild crew. While right in front of us was a man with a demanding medical career, we were mostly ignorant; we bustled about in our own tiny selves, not at all thinking about what he did when he left the driveway in the early hours headed to the surgical arena to direct the roomful of attendants. You see, I’d never been rolled into one of those cold spaces before, never had to rely on the careful hands of someone, who like my own father, guarded their digits for the life and safety of patients. If you get general anesthesia, you don’t have much time to take in the entirety of the space, but what I managed to glimpse was the enormity of the situation, the command a surgeon must hold with their team, a magnificent and daunting job.

I spent a long night after surgery in the care of several angelic nurses, all who spoke with a softness you need when returning from the ether, which afforded me many hours thinking of this man, who I call Dad, who gave me the love of all art forms, from the grandiose of opera to the reverie found in nature, who repeated Soupy Sales jokes and loved the Cowardly Lion, who needed solitude but filled his home with us whenever he could. It isn’t incongruous to me that he could fulfill both roles but it is extraordinary that I was so ignorant to what my father actually did with his daytime hours. His largesse flooded me as waves of lucidity and nausea swept over me through the dark hours. Not only his importance, but all those who are called into the healing profession. These people, who shift our limbs, who add another blanket, who care so deeply, left me in awe. And gratitude. Those of you who do all the tasks that keep us mortals breathing and whole, please allow me to say thank you. Your families have little idea of what you give each day. They truly don’t know. But I am humbled by your service and am so very grateful for what you are willing to do in the service of our wellbeing.

My father eventually retired as a surgeon, and spent his last decade teaching ancient world history (a passion of his) to college students. As a teacher myself, I had a better appreciation of his crafting lesson plans and grading essays. But I never witnessed him in his classroom. I guess sitting next to him on a snowy log in the woods listening to the winter bird banter will be the closest I got to his teaching. Listen, he would remind me, don’t waste your life in worry.

13 thoughts on “What I Never Really Understood About My Father

  1. Hi

    I’ve been thinking of you — sending healing vibes. Hope all is good. 

    And yes to not really knowing our fathers’ journeys.  For mine, I can’t imagine going off to War — and coming back. 


    div>Be warm. 

    Sent from my iPhone


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    Liked by 1 person

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