Every week at the back of the New York Times Magazine there's a one-page feature called Lives. The magazine invites contributions from anyone. They simply tell you "If you haven't heard from us in a month, we're probably not using your piece."
Well, my month is up. So here's what I wrote:
Pointing To The Pain
What a difference being British makes
By Dave Tutin
I cannot say the English doctor killed my father. But I cannot say she prolonged his life either. My dad, Arthur George Tutin, died August 31, 2002. He was always known as George because that was his father's name. This tradition ended with me, which was a good thing. I don’t think I'm an Arthur. And after witnessing my dad's supreme strength and dignity in the face of death, I doubt that I'm a George.
Growing up in Nottingham, England, I was not close to my dad. He was a passionate sportsman. He played cricket and soccer – football as we Brits call it – where he played in goal. And this meant more than his share of injuries. Maybe it was this association of sport with pain that made me shy away from it. For me, life was music. It was the wild ride of a precocious sixties youth through Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, electric Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the whole wonderful musical and sexual liberation that was our time. I turned 13 in '65. By '66 I was doing it all - sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
The English sportsman and the newcomer to Desolation Row. It was a difficult relationship. But there were flashes of hope. When my mother discovered proof, in '68, that my underage girlfriend and I were having sex, my father delivered the man-to-man speech about how we were too young and did we understand how devastating a mistake would be at our age? I listened, with my long hair hanging down like a giant cultural barrier between us. He finally told me to leave the room, to go and think very hard about where I was going in life. Then, just as I decided there wasn't the tiniest island of common ground between us, he added "Oh and one more thing"…he smiled… "You lucky bastard!" He then softened his earlier threats to "Look, just wait a while, there's plenty of time for everything."
That was the moment I first saw him as a man, not just my dad. A man with his own share of problems I knew nothing about. It changed me. I even managed to stop exploring my girlfriend's body for at least two weeks.
As is often the case, it took a little time, a little growth, a little dose of the real world for us to become closer. When I was successful in advertising, and my love of all things musical and artistic actually seemed to be a contributor to that success, he finally recognized me as my own person. The apple may have fallen a long way from the tree but it had fallen in a pretty good place.
We had some great times together. My job would allow me to live in places like London, Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco and my mom and dad would visit me wherever I was. Finally I made New York my permanent home. And on 9/11 the email contact with my increasingly deaf father would be the most important link to someone outside of the insanity of downtown Manhattan.
What I didn’t know was that my dad still had problems of his own he wasn't sharing. He hadn’t told me that he'd been making frequent trips to his doctor complaining of chest pain. I didn’t know that when she had jumped to the obvious conclusion of heart problems my dad had explained his three earlier heart attacks and how this pain was unlike anything he'd ever felt – before, during or after those events. I didn’t know that she had sent him to the hospital several times for different tests, investigating his digestive tract from what he later called "The wrong end". I didn't know that time after time my father had sat in front of her, almost in tears, saying how he could point to the exact location of the pain. And then do so. I didn't know that after more than a year of this pain she finally said "Well, there's one last test we can do but I know it's not going to show anything and we don’t like to do this test very often because it's quite expensive."
The test was to put a camera down my father's throat. Which showed he had cancer of the esophagus. At the point he'd been pointing to all this time was the cancer that would take his life only a few months later (not the year the experts gave him). It had been given the time it needed to grow beyond the help of either surgery or radiation. Was it beyond those things a year earlier? We'll never know.
On the day he was told it was incurable I was able to be with him in Nottingham. As I wept for the first time in years, he held me and said, "I've had a good run. It's been a good innings". Ever the sportsman. It was during my next visit to England that he died. I still think he chose to die, knowing I was 'home' to take care of things.
I've made my home in America. My Chinese wife and I are now US citizens and in 2006 we brought my mother to live here too. But I often think about that doctor in Nottingham. I think of her listening to other patients like my dad. I think of her jumping to obvious conclusions, writing prescriptions for ineffective antacids, the purple pill or some other drug-du-jour. I think of her doing what the British National Health Service expects of her by saving the "expensive" tests for last. I think of the almost mindless acceptance of 'authority' that is still expected of you if you’re British. I think of how they are only now making it easier for patients to seek apologies and compensation for doctors' mistakes.
Then I think like an American. And I remember that, here, we have a word for how that doctor treated my father. Malpractice.
(©2007 Dave Tutin)