As mentioned in the previous confession, my father was a famous cancer doctor. He was in charge of the morgue at a prestigious hospital for close to 40 years. He did the autopsy on many famous people who died of cancer (including the man who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, Jake Ruby.) He confided in me that he autopsied many famous Hollywood and political personalities but he couldn’t share it with me since they did not want the world to know they died of cancer.
The Torch Bearer
My father loved his children nearly as much as he loved medicine. He yearned for one of us to be a doctor. As the youngest and most nerdy the onus fell on me to carry the torch. (My mother’s father was a small-town doctor and her sister and brother-in-law were also pathologists.) I think I was primed to be a doctor. I was not close to my other brothers since they were much older than I. I didn’t have many friends…I loved encyclopedias and had an insatiable love of learning. As part of the indoctrination campaign, my father took me to work on the weekends. Every weekend for 12 years. My father loved his job so much he would work 7 days-a-week. We went in early on the weekend mornings and leave by 12:00 or so. The old aphorism is that you should match your passion with your job. He epitomized it. Now the cynic would say he was always at work and traveling the world as a way to escape my mother’s mental health issues, but that is neither here nor there.
I loved going to the hospital. It was my lighthouse in the proverbial stormy seas. He was a celebrity there. Everyone knew him….the techs, the gift shop ladies, the nurses, the cafeteria staff. He was loved and respected by all…partly because he treated everyone, regardless of their station, the same. The custodians, cafeteria workers, the guard…he knew all of their names. And that was the essence of my father. He was world-famous but never acted the part. This is well-demonstrated in that he wore the same red shirt and blue shorts every day to work on the weekend, he drove the oldest, less pretentious car in the family, and in general, we lived in a pretty modest house. I think this stems from his poverty. My grandfather worked the highways, but blew much of family’s money on booze. As a result, they eked out a living. Also, my father’s frugality was pretty common in kids who grew up in the Great Depression era.
The Fun House
My father’s morgue was a veritable playland for a kid. Unlike other fathers who might exhibit a more-cautious approach when exposing their children to their workplace, my father reveled in its macabre environs. He would push me into the refrigerated vaults with the cadavers, allow me to play with the knives, saws, and other Marquis de Sade cutting utensils used for autopsies. Walking into his lab, featuring tumor-distorted organs in jars, was akin to walking into a Tim Burton movie. Even a paltry amount of retrospection gives me some trepidation as to whether this altered my psyche. I don’t think it did. I knew my father’s job was unique. It gave me a first-hand view of disease and death that Gray’s Anatomy could. It didn’t turn me into a sullen child or fuel my binge eating. It gave me respite from the horrors of school to have some quality time with my father, albeit amidst dead, naked bodies.
Like with other adventures in my life, I loved to wander the hospital. My love of wandering, which may be seen in a lot of these confessions, was propelled by my ravenous curiosity, my rampant love of observation of the human being, and largely wanting to be left alone. When you are fat, you don’t want people to place their attention on you. You want to be an invisible entity…a fly on the wall. But being invisible develops your other talents….namely the art of observation and discernment. That is one of the greatest talent I nurtured as an obese child. I would watch people, watch their body language, how they spoke, how they looked when others spoke…and inhaled it all in. Similar to blind people who develop quasi-supernatural hearing, I developed quite a knack to read people.
In this confession, that is neither here nor there. So, if my father was busy with an autopsy or writing an article he would give me money and send me on my way. First stop? The cafeteria of course! I loved a plate-full of eggs. Second stop? The vending machines. I loved ice cream sandwiches. Thus fueled by breakfast (i.e. dessert in the morning), I roamed the hospital. The hospital on the weekends was a virtual ghost town. Just essential staff monitored the patients. This cancer hospital also served as a research institute so there were floors where cancer drugs were tested on mice. I would visit them saddened by the intentional tumor placed on their bodies. I roamed and roamed. Having adventures in my mind…exploring new worlds like a 16-century Portuguese explorer.
Eventually, I came across the attention of the security guards. They knew my father and given my youth they weren’t too worried about my “going postal.” I developed a very close relationship with the guards so much so they would take me on their security walk-throughs through the hospital. I got to see every nook-and-cranny of the hospital. Like the Convenience Store, I always fostered great relationships with adults. I don’t know why exactly. They seemed to be less judgmental and perhaps they liked being around a precocious fat kid.
The cancer wards made me sad. Walking through the floors with the cancer patients, in particular the children, depressed me. To see these children undergoing painful chemo and radiation, emaciated, follicularly-deprived, and on the verge of death did give me perspective. My life was pretty lousy with the incessant ridicule and scant realization that I would have a shorter lifespan due to my morbid obesity. But at least I had a life to live….many of these kids didn’t have that luxury. It is said that the best way to get spoiled, narcissistic Veruca Salt-type kids to be less so is to expose them to the discarded of society. Taking them to homeless shelters, old-age homes, and hospitals gives them perspective that though they may suffer from “Affluenza” their life is infinitely better than most. First world problems…so to speak.
Next to regaling cadavers, my greatest pleasure at the hospital was religiously-related. The hospital boasted a small chapel, a sanctuary for patients and family alike. As a good Catholic boy, I frequented the chapel quite a bit (since we went to the hospital on Sunday) and developed great relationships with the priests there to the point I helped officiate the Mass. Catholic pageantry is beautiful: the vestments, the chalices, the sacramentals. I loved being a de-facto altar boy. (I never contemplated being an altar boy at my parish, for the altar boys there were the reprobates that ridicule me.) Of course, it didn’t hurt that the chapel was next to the vending machine room! I needed my hourly dose of honey buns, microwave pizzas, and Drumsticks after all.
Heartache and disillusionment ended my halcyon weekend escapades. I stopped going once I graduated high school. Upon entering college I had a firm desire to become a doctor and explicitly expressed that interest to my father. Internally, I worried that I didn’t have the brains, and most importantly, the confidence to do it. I inevitably broke my father’s heart. I let me fears and insecurities get the best of me, for on my first day of college I changed my major from pre-medicine to Undecided Humanities. “Undecided Humanities.” Those two words almost killed my father 15 years before his actual aortic dissection which ended his life.
He tried to convince me to change my mind but I refused. I wasn’t so much scared of the academic rigor of becoming a doctor. It was more the people I had to encounter for the next 10 years. In my mind, the same people who maligned and tortured me for years were going to be pre-Med as well. But most importantly, I lacked the confidence.
Why? The obesity of course. Going back to previous confessions, not too deep in my conscious I thought I was dirt and incapable of succeeding in any endeavor in my life. Even though I was one year removed from losing my weight, I still was an obese kid in a skinnier body. This sentiment is echoed in The Invisible Student. Just because the body quickly changes doesn’t mean the mind does. I was still the same fat boy laden with insecurities and self-loathing accumulated over 15 years. In retrospect, I allowed those insecurities to inevitably alter the course of my life. And of course break the heart of my parents. Both of which I regret to this day.
A. Gregory Luna, double-certified health consultant
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