My Little Dog Jack

The table was cleared last night and all the leftovers were put away– today they are nearly gone.  Three loads of dishes were done, and the last of the fancy glasses were put back on the shelf, upside down so they won’t collect dust until the next time they are used, next November.  The white linen table cloth and napkins are still on the dining room table—out of sight, out of mind.  I’ll get to those tomorrow, I promise.  Someone fed the cat pumpkin pie, and I awoke this morning to view the results of that indiscretion on my fluffy white bath mat.  All in all, Thanksgiving was business as usual.  Except for one thing—and everyone who came remarked upon this fact—Jack did not bark.  Not even once.

Jack is my little dog, a ten pound Brussels griffon, that I bought as a puppy fourteen years ago on a whim after seeing the Jack Nicholson movie “As Good as It Gets.”  Those of you who have seen the movie know that the misanthropic author protagonist, Melvin Udall, played by Nicholson, gets stuck taking care of a very cute but rather obnoxious little dog after the dog’s gay owner is attacked and hospitalized.  Gradually, Udall learns to love the dog, and to tolerate human beings.  I was smitten by the little movie dog, had to have one, and did NOT do my homework.  As a result I have had fourteen years of a yappy tiny tyrant who rules us, the deerhounds and the cat, and who has never been successfully housebroken. There were years when I am sure that my Jack, like that old Gary Larson comic strip (“my name is No No Bad Dog”) thought his own name was “Shut the F-ck Up Jack!”  But Jack is blind, deaf and crippled by arthritis now, and no longer hearing, he no longer barks.

My eighty seven year old father flew out to spend Thanksgiving with us, since my mother has advanced dementia and no longer speaks or recognizes him from her nursing home bed.  He had not been to California in more than six months, and he was shocked at how much the little dog had aged in that short period of time.  My dad spent most of the day on Wednesday and part of the day yesterday organizing his papers and the stories he calls his “vignettes”, tales from his youth in Chicago, his time in the Navy, his many years as a practicing plastic surgeon.  He read one of his stories at dinner last night—as a child during the Great Depression in Chicago he had thrown his vegetables on the floor in a temper tantrum and his father, my grandfather, had dragged him downtown to see the lines of men waiting outside in back of the cafeteria, to receive the garbage to take home to feed their families.  It was a reminder to us all to be thankful for what we have.

As my father sat working at the kitchen table, my little dog Jack lay silent at his feet, sleeping in a patch of bright sunlight that shone in from the sliding glass doors leading outside.  They’ve both slowed down a bit, and they’ve both lost their hearing, and some of their footing, but there’s life in those two little old men yet. I know one thing for sure, and that is that there will never be another like either of them.

My Father’s Hands

I never gave my hands much thought until a few years ago.  They were never pretty, but they were functional serviceable hands that did what they were asked—I could examine a patient, type fast and accurately enough, and everyone always told me that my handwriting was outstanding.  That has always been a point of pride for I knew that I was never going to kill a patient because a pharmacist could not read my prescription.  I sign my name with the broad sweeping rounded cursive of a 10 year old child.

Perhaps because my hands are no longer young, I realized with a start a couple of years back that they look exactly like my father’s hands.  I was not thrilled to realize this, but it certainly explained the reaction I would always get when trying on rings at a jewelry counter—the salesperson would always say, with great surprise, “Your ring size is SO SMALL!”  Why wouldn’t my ring size be small?  I am a short person—just never grew much.  What I realized was that I have broad palms, and short fingers, and the proportions are all wrong for a person with a size 5 ring finger—yes, I dare say it—because of the proportions my fingers look fat.  This was a huge disappointment to me, since I have always desired the long delicate fingers of a nail polish model.  It does not matter if your ring size is a 5, if your hands are broad and your fingers are short.  Of all the things I could inherit from my father, the green eyes were welcome; the short fingers were not.

My father is eighty seven years old.  Never a tall man, he has lost several inches in height as he has aged, and now barely reaches five feet.  He is a plastic surgeon, once world renowned for his work in maxillo-facial surgery, where surgeons must truly be artists  to repair the faces of children with hideous birth defects, and victims of terrible accidents.  Although he has been “retired” for many years, he never stopped working.  He travels the world with various charitable groups who send surgeons to the far reaches of the globe to repair birth defects and accident and burn victims, allowing them to lead the normal lives that others take for granted.  Yesterday, he returned from Zambia where Surgicorps volunteer plastic surgeons and teams of scrub nurses, anesthesiologists, physical and occupational therapists performed miracles at the Beit Cure Hospital in Lukasa for 60 children in desperate need of surgery to repair their birth defects and burn scar contractures.  This time, for the first time, he took my daughter, the 4th year medical student with him.

My daughter, like me, has chronicled her life in photographs.  This trip was no exception.  She took pictures of the parents and of the children who patiently waited for hours on the hospital lawn, just to be seen, to be evaluated, to have a chance at a better life.  Despite the cleft lips, the cleft palates, the fused fingers and toes and the burn scars, there is happiness and joy in her photographs, and there is patience and forbearance and acceptance.  One photograph, in particular struck me with a force that brought tears to my eyes.  It is a photograph of my father, seated across from a tiny girl.  In this picture, the little girl’s hand, tiny and plump, has closed its fingers around my father’s right index finger.  They are gazing into each others eyes and they are smiling.

Today, I was proud to have my father’s hands.