My father…the world-famous cancer doctor. He was a pathologist…the doctors that diagnose diseases. He went to medical school in 1950’s Mexico and later received a job offer at one of the most prestigious cancer hospitals in the world. That is how we ended up in Houston. My parents intended to return to Mexico (as illustrated in the fact that my two older brothers had very Mexican names.) By the time I was born 10-15 years later they knew they were staying in America, hence the Anglocized name Albert Gregory.
My father…the word famous cancer doctor. How famous was he? He published over 300 medical journal articles, wrote 21 books, and was the head of the American, Latin American, and European Pathological Associations at various times in his life. And he wasn’t even European! He gave conferences all over the world. Streets were named for him in Mexico. Pathology residents revere him. He is in the textbooks. In short, he was one of the foremost head & neck cancer doctors of the 20th century. I joke with my middle brother that he was the model for those great XX commercials “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” for he exuded charisma, charm, graciousness, and a phenomenal self-deprecating humor. He was an amateur bullfighter for Pete’s Sake and participated in the “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain.
Akin to the two-faced Roman god of doors, Janus, my father had two faces. He was a conundrum. A man of utmost generosity laced with a ferocious temper. A beguiling affability complemented by an acidic tongue. Alcohol was his vice. Medicine was his love. We were somewhere in the middle.
The Dr. Jekyl
Much of my childhood is laden with fond memories of him. Among the little things, he was my assistant baseball and soccer coach. Despite the fact he was traveling the world 1/3 of the year, he always found time to be there. (Partly because he worshipped soccer.) Always encouraging…never critical of my skills. He also imbued in me a love of opera, painting, and the Fine Arts, all of which I cultivate to do this day.
He engendered in me a love of learning and travel. While we used to travel cross-country throughout the U.S., he instructed me on how to drive on the highways. (“Only be in the left lane when passing.”) He used to call me his “assistant pilot” and allow me to sit in the passenger seat. It was my job to help him find the exits, our hotel stay for the night, and other locales. He answered all my questions regarding geography and travel. In short, my passion for geography and history are solely ascribed to him.
My father’s view of religion was contradictory. He loved the Catholic Church. He imparted in me the love of Church history, the papacy, and the various heresies the enemies of the church surreptitiously introduced. He loved the Jesuit Order, hated the Freemasons (as any Catholic knowledgeable in history should), and loved a good traditional Mass. At our typical suburban weekly Mass, though, he was completely checked out. He mumbled the prayers and distractedly looked around the church. He confided in us that he detested the modern mass with its folk music, effeminate priests, and watered-down message of tolerance for all forms of sin and eschewing the century-long beliefs of judgment, purgatory, and hell. He loved the rosary, sacramentals, and took many pilgrimages to holy sites where Mary visited children.
One of my most fond memories was perpetual adoration. Not to get too bogged down on Catholic theology, but most churches have a private chapel in which people prayer in front of the host, which in Catholic teaching is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. The goal was to have a 24-hour-presence at the chapel. My dad signed up for Wednesday 3:00am. I wanted to be with my dad so badly I asked if I could go with him. So in the middle of the night we would sit in the chapel alone. He would kneel and pray for an hour and I would sit in the back doing homework or just wonder at the candles and iconography. For what did he pray? No clue, perhaps like all fathers to be a better father, husband, son and to curb his temptations. Did he pray for my obesity? Probably not per se but rather for my betterment. Afterwards, in great Luna style we went to a 24-hour diner to eat an early breakfast.
There I got 3 bagels with cream cheese. We did this for almost 8 years. It was splendid!
He didn’t have the means of King Midas, but he lent money to those as if he did. His generosity was prolific. He gave money to his morgue assistants to help them with child support, rent, or whatever fabrication they invented. He even gave money to one of them so he could start his own church in the impoverished part of Houston. He gave money to his step-sisters who watched over his ailing father. In perhaps the most magnanimous gesture, he gave money monthly to his aging mother…the same mother who walked on his father, brothers, and him on his 3rd birthday.
My father was a mercurial man. When the mood suited him or if he was not imbuing the alcohol he was the gentle, supportive, charismatic man described above. However, he would undulate on the pendulum in a very short time to be hostile, insulting, and quick-tempered.
My most vivid memories were of his arrival from work. Immediately upon entering my mother and I could sense how the evening was going to go. Now, he was never the slurring, staggering drunk; he epitomized sangfroid and equanimity. He would enter the house and my mother would greet him. If he would be under the influence we knew by the first response. My mother would then ask “What is wrong?” If anything bad was happening with the family he would blame her and tell her “Vete a carajo” meaning “Go to hell.” He would then turn his attention on me by throwing fat slurs or berate me on my numerous failings.
Then his mood would change. He would then speak to us in a kind manner. We all would have “deer in the headlights” look because he would hurl these invectives at us and then a moment later give us this look “What is wrong?” His ability to turn on a dime flummoxed us and kept us eternally off-ease and vigilant.
My mother rarely outwardly confronted him. She was partly afraid of him; partly because she knew her lifestyle was dependent on his world-famous reputation. (She was a homemaker. Women of that generation didn’t have that luxury of depending on a second income.) If in the mood, she would confront him by calling him a drunk and telling him that he was hurting his children with his emotional vicissitudes and reckless drinking. (He got out of numerous DUIs by cajoling cops.)
My father knew he had a drinking problem. Any time guests came over we never had liquor to offer because we couldn’t leave any in the house. My father would drink it. Nevertheless, on any given day, you could go through his car and find 3-4 small liquor bottles (typically vodka) and breath mints. He would typically get them on the way to “the gym” if that is in fact where we went. We would find hidden bottles in the house.
My mother never realized that perhaps her depression and anxiety stoked my father’s drinking. Indubitably, his mother walking out on him as a child was the underlying trauma he tried to mitigate through alcohol, but my mother’s personality didn’t help. Her binge shopping, her need to be alone most of the day, her neurosis. As with all people, they were both just scratching out an existence doing the best they could with the baggage they both carried.
The parallels don’t fly by me. We had to keep the liquor away from him the same way they had to keep the food from me. We hid the booze from him; they locked the food away from me. Addiction is generation; it just manifests in different ways.
Times existed in my adolescence in which I detested my father and blamed him for all of my fat trauma. Even then I still loved him. In Why did I become fat? I speak about our reconciliation. My father moderated his mood swings as he aged and mellowed out. He even confided in his later years he had a drinking problem.
The last 10 years of his life I saw much more of the Jekyll than the Hyde. Perhaps he was a happier man. Perhaps he was just too tired to berate. Or perhaps he was kinder to me since I looked “normal” now and no longer had to be ashamed of his obese son. Perhaps he saw his death coming. I miss my father dearly. He was a larger-than-life personality. An ambulatory Oracle of Delphi. An astute Mexican Socrates who dispensed nonpareil council. I miss how he could fall asleep on a dime, how at meals he would try to distract me so he could eat off my plate, how he would pontificate about how the U.S. f*cked over Mexico throughout its history. To me he will always be “the most interesting man in the world.”
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”
A. Gregory Luna, double-certified Health Consultant
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