In Memoriam: An Obituary for My Father

by Mark Kleiman

My father's 90th birthday would have been this month. When he died, seven years ago, I posted an obit on my blog; I think it's the only one he got.

Text after the jump.

In Memoriam

My father, Allen Kleiman, M.D., died last night, after several years of increasing debility and discomfort.

The slippage in communication between his home health aides and his internist that allowed an infection in his foot to develop into gangrene doesn't say much for the quality of health services available to the debilitated, even if they're prosperous and well plugged in to the social system, but in this particular instance it's hard to regret it very much. Two years ago, when he was much better shape mentally and physically than he was over the past few months, he said to me, "I'm just waiting." Another time he told me he was sorry to longer have his handgun—taken in a burglary years ago and never replaced—because he had regarded it as a guaranteed exit if things ever got too bad.

He didn't ask me to get him a new gun; under Maryland's recently-passed "Kevorkian statute" it would have been a felony for me to do so knowing he intended to use the gun to kill himself. Not that it would have mattered; toward the end he lacked the strength and dexterity to sign his name, let alone hold a gun and pull the trigger. I'm not sure he would have been capable of suicide in any case. "Tired of living and scared of dying" more or less summed it up.

Some years ago, though, he wrote and left an extremely strong advance directive. As a result, when the surgeon said to us "We'd need to amputate above the knee, and even then the odds aren't good" the decision was entirely straightforward.

He was a man who, like James Branch Cabell's Manuel, "lived according to his own notions." One of those notions was to dislike intensely the ritual of funeral and memorial service, and therefore the advance directive specified that he was to have neither, and that if there was no medical use to be made of his body it was to be cremated, and the ashes scattered over his favorite rosebed. Those instructions are being carried out to the letter.

However, he never said I couldn't post something about him on this weblog, and I have no reason to think that he would have disapproved of my doing so, as long as I told it straight and didn't pull any punches.

My father discovered that living according to his own notions was anything but an easy business, even for a private practitioner with no boss to answer to. (A shouting match with the Chief of Surgery in the lobby of the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Phoenix put an early end to his career as a civil servant.) Since he found Chevrolets and mail-order suits from Haband perfectly satisfactory for his purposes, he refused to buy the sort of cars and clothing that make a surgeon look successful, thereby encouraging referrals. It wasn't as if he didn't understand the logic and the arithmetic of the situation: he knew perfectly well that his cheap suits cost him a lot of money in lost business. But he simply wouldn't stoop to participate in what he regarded as an irrational process of dressing and driving the part of the prosperous doctor.

There's a lot of my father in me: the part that thinks the world would be a better place if more people valued integrity over success. Another part thinks he was mostly being, to use one of his favorite words, "stubborn." (He'd draw it out to three exaggerated syllables for emphasis: "stub-ree-UN.")

His education was indifferent; he rushed through college in three years on the way to medical school and rather prided himself on giving his coursework no more effort than it absolutely demanded. But his curiosity was intense—though his opinions were sometimes cranky—on a range of topics from cosmology to Egyptology. As a reasoner, he was acute, stronger than most of my teachers and colleagues, though I grew to doubt the soundness of some of his factual premises. He wasn't especially voluble, regarding talking a lot as showing a lack of gravitas, but he could hold his own in an argument. (I remember him, the atheist in an Orthodox Jewish family, saying to his rather observant—and beloved—uncle Joe in a post-Seder discussion "Yossel, are you really trying to tell me that Whatever made the cosmos and the elementary particles cares whether or not I eat pork?")

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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