For Dr. Lawyer and Dr. G
For Dr. Lawyer and Dr. G
In the story it’s a steak knife in Dr. G’s hand, his fingers curled around it with a purpose, his eyes calm but intent.
Dr. G is Dr. Lawyer’s father. Was Dr. Lawyer’s father. He died on Friday after a long and debilitating period of illness. We waked him today, and tomorrow we’ll bury him.
I’m sitting right now at Dr. Lawyer’s kitchen table in Garden City, NY, still reeling from the ceremony, the parade of faces I haven’t seen in years and years, the stories that celebrated this special man. Dr. Lawyer is family to me, which means that his father is family too.
Here’s a story: When I was a kid, I got hit by a car, took a knock on the head hard enough to wipe the whole event from my memory. I retained a few flashes — the oncoming grill of a car, a police officer on the scene, writhing around on an emergency-room gurney. I came to in the hospital, my arm and leg in casts and a serious knot on my head.
And Dr. G was there. He wasn’t my doctor — he was a doctor for grown-ups, a cardiologist, and he took care of my parents, most of my friends’ parents and seemingly everyone else in Garden City, a clientele that was not always willing to take sound medical advice.
And that day he took care of me, studied my charts and X-rays, examined my busted knee, looked into my eyes. No one asked him to do this; he just did it. Dr. G always knew what to do. And he always did it.
He wanted to be a baseball player, you know. He even landed a tryout with his home-team Pittsburgh Pirates way back in the day. But instead of becoming an infielder, he went to medical school, because he was the smartest one in the family, the only one who could handle the rigors of the training.
He always knew what to do, and he always knew what to say.
Tonight at the wake, a man remembered a special instance of Dr. G’s unique bedside manner. Dr. G had examined the man’s mother, an elderly woman with roots in the same part of southern Italy as Dr. Lawyer’s family. When it came time for Dr. G to break the news, the man said, he knelt in front of the woman, took her hand in both of his own and spoke in Italian.
“He said ‘We’re gonna fight this,’” the man remembered. “I’ll never forget it.”
And I’ll never forget about the steak knife. Dr. Lawyer told me this one when he was just Mr. Lawyer, after law school but before he went to med school. We were young, and back on Long Island, staying up all night trying to make some sense of our lives. Dr. Lawyer had become disillusioned with the law and was trying to figure out what came next. He admired his father, his life, his career, his sense of purpose. And he illustrated it with this story.
The two of them were having dinner in a restaurant one night, a couple guys, a couple steaks, a couple bottles of wine, when a patron in the dining room began choking. A fracas ensued on the dining room floor, but Dr. Lawyer said he was too stunned to move, frozen to his chair, and even if he wasn’t, he said, he wasn’t equipped to do anything about it but sue the restaurant.
Then he looked over at his dad, who calmly watched the scene unfold. Dr. Lawyer noticed that his father had cleaned off his steak knife and gripped it firmly in his hand. He realized that if the man continued choking, that his father, Dr. G, was prepared to perform an emergency tracheotomy right there in the middle of the restaurant.
“It was crazy,” Dr. Lawyer said. But that was Dr. G: He always knew the right thing to do, and he was always willing to do it.
But then someone managed to perform a successful Heimlich on the choking diner, averting tragedy. And to hear Dr. Lawyer tell it, his dad just shrugged his shoulders and went back to eating his steak.
It wasn’t too long after that when Dr. Lawyer started med school, became a psychiatrist, moved back to Garden City with his wife — a cardiologist — and family, and began to help the people of this community in much the same way his father had before him.
He has the same calming way with people his father did, the same genuine concern for his patients and the same taste for sharp clothes.
Like his father, Dr. Lawyer knows what to do these days. And he’s always ready to do it.
Tomorrow morning we’ll say goodbye to Dr. G one last time. He was a good man, and he will be missed. But his legacy continues.