On Election Day, I am at the bedside of my father, James A. Fallows MD, who is nearing the end of his extraordinary life. Six months ago, when he first seemed mortal, I was grateful for the opportunity to talk about him at the college he attended for two years -- before being rushed straight to medical school for service as a Navy doctor -- and from which he received his honorary bachelor's degree 60 years later.
Just now I have received a note that expresses more vividly than I could what a life well, fully, and joyously lived can mean. I share it now, with the writer's permission, at a time when my dad himself can no longer appreciate it but while it is not yet purely retrospective.
The note begins:
My name is Erin Cox-Holmes, and I'm a fan of the Atlantic ...As I was trolling sites today, waiting through the nail-biter until the results came in, I happened upon your site. And, as I always do when I see your name, I thought of your dad.
It continues below:
I grew up in Redlands; my mom, Shirley Cox, was a nurse at the Beaver Medical clinic [where my father worked]. Your dad was our family doctor.
In 1978, when I was 18, a second year student at the U of R [U of Redlands] counting the days until departure for the Salzburg semester, I found a series of lumps on the back and side of my neck. My mom was worried about me, and talked your dad's nurse into working me in. This was one week before Christmas. I went in casually, and watched your dad's face go from nonchalant to veiled as he felt the side of my neck. He dismissed my mother to the waiting room, and then told me that he thought there was a 95% chance that I had lymphoma, and, if I did, there was a 90% chance I'd be dead in six months.
There's no flowery way to deliver that kind of message. He said it baldly, and simply. The depth of ache in his eyes was from someone who had to deliver news like that on a regular basis, but never got used to it....
He tactfully put it that he thought I would like time to let it sink in before we called my mother in and gave her the news. He just sat there with me for about five minutes, and then brought my mother back in. ...I'd had enough time to breathe that I could manage my pounding heart, and also cope with her feelings.
Our family was barely surviving financially, and he also personally went to talk to "her" doctor, the urologist, to convince him to give her the rest of the afternoon off, with pay.
Diagnosis being what it was back then, a biopsy was the only way to actually know what was happening inside people's skins. The first available date was after the New Year. I have no idea what strings your dad pulled, or what family plans of yours got ruined, but he managed to get an operating room late in the day on Christmas Eve, so we wouldn't go through the holiday without knowing. (He asked if I would rather know or not, on Christmas morning, and I wanted to know.)
I knew after surgery that I would know by the length of the incision whether it was a benign lump or a tumor, but was not prepared to wake up in recovery, and discover that I was so thoroughly bandaged that I would not be able to tell.
I woke up by myself, felt the bandages on my neck, couldn't call anyone due to the after-effects of the breathing tube. But your dad appeared one minute later, and said that he'd been watching, so that I wouldn't wake up alone to wonder. And, I'm sure the glimmer I saw in his eyes wasn't merely a reflection of the florescent lights, when he told me the lumps were benign. That long-healed line on my neck is still tender, and I never finger it, without remembering his remarkable kindness, that small town doctor, in a world which has passed by.
Your blog entry today says that you are at a medical facility on family business, and I thought the remembrance of your dad's mercy might cheer you as you face whatever this day brings to you and yours.