The Gentle Doctor
Remembering my father on the centennial of his birth
“What’s the bilirubin?”
One of my earliest memories: my father standing in the dark, asking this question into the phone in the dead of night. As a family pediatrician, he would get calls at all hours. My bedroom was directly across the hall from my parents’ and the phone was in between.
Perhaps once a week, a caller would wake the whole house at 2 am. By the third ring, my father would have padded out of the bedroom, by the fourth he would have cleared his throat, and before it could ring a fifth time he would answer —
Friendly, clear as a bell, and without a hint of the husk of 2 am. His tone signaled to the caller that this was no imposition whatsoever.
It’s just fine. Don’t worry about it.
It was nearly always newborns that necessitated 2 am calls. Babies are fragile creatures after all, as are their parents. And often the phone calls centered on bilirubin count — a test given to infants suffering from jaundice.
“What’s the bilirubin?” He would ask the nurse on the other end of the line. A high bilirubin indicated toxicity and the goal was to get it down. After a hushed, indecipherable chat, he would say a friendly “Goodbye” and shuffle back to bed.
Can words ever adequately convey the essence of a life? My father’s resume was impressive, but it would explain nothing about his essence as a human. A resume wouldn’t conjure the image of him standing over the kitchen sink devouring a peach. Or the linty half-roll of Peppermint Lifesavers he always had in his trousers pocket should I need one. Or the self-invented lullaby he would sing to me when I was very young. (It involved a lot of doo-bee-doos.)
Memories aren’t linear like a resume. They are multi-sensory fragments. They come in bursts, bounce around, take focus for a moment and just as quickly recede from view. Are fragments the best way to convey the essence of a life?
My father was a Guatemalan and his first language was Spanish. While his English was perfect and accent-less by the time I knew him, there were still Spanish words and phrases that would slip out when he was agitated — Ricky Ricardo-style. When I was whining unnecessarily I’d get a teasing pobre chico (poor boy). At other times I’d get a sharper siéntate (sit down!)
Spanish-speakers would describe him as simpatico. It is a word that has no exact equivalent in English. The closest might be “nice,” but simpatico is more nuanced than that. My father was nice — tremendously nice. But more than just nice, he was accommodating, polite, courtly, gentle, easy to be around.
All dogs liked my dad. All children liked my dad. Medical colleagues, hospital interns, the check-out clerk at the grocery store, the burly guy who worked at the gas station. Everyone he came into contact with seemed to instantly like him. The custodians at the medical center enjoyed chatting with him in Spanish. My grandmother’s luncheon friends found him charming.
From time to time, our doorbell would ring and there would be a neighborhood parent at the front door — an anxious look on their face. Joey had a fever or Amy had broken out in a rash or Bobby had fallen off his bike. My dad would invite them in, take a moment to fetch his Doctor’s bag — carefully packed with alcohol swabs, tongue depressors, bandages — and accompany the worried parent out the door.
The neighborhood kids addressed the other dads as Mister. Everyone called my dad Doctor.
When your dad is a pediatrician, you never go to the doctor. Nearly any ailment could be cured at home with free pharmaceutical samples brought from the office. It took me years to discover that not all pills come in one-dose packs.
But most of his prescriptions weren’t medicinal at all. Upset stomach? Coca-Cola. Flu? Lots of water and sleep. Aches, pains, scrapes, bruises, tingling, numbness, bumps, rashes: nothing to get concerned about. Give it some time. It will go away. Try not to worry.
His voice alone had its own placebo effect.
He wasn’t gregarious. He was never the life of the party. He didn’t tell great stories and his sense of humor was passable at best. He spoke softly and didn’t carry a big stick. Instantly likable but also unknowable. He knew when to laugh at your joke, but despite the hilarity of the punchline, he never gave it more than a friendly chuckle.
He was the epitome of Still Waters Run Deep. Yet none of us could plumb those depths.
Ask a probing question about his life experience or views on a controversial topic and he would deflect with a smile and a chuckle “it’s not really that interesting.” Or “I don’t have a strong opinion about that.”
He was allergic to bragging. Perhaps it was generational. We always suspected this was the lesser-known side of that Latin machismo. Don’t talk about yourself. Don’t grab the spotlight. It’s unbecoming.
You would never have known, for instance, that he was an Ambassador’s son; that he had degrees from Harvard and Columbia; that he was a Naval Officer in the Korean War; that he had been the Chief Resident at the renowned Children’s Hospital in Washington.
And he certainly wouldn’t tell you that when he began his practice as the only Spanish-speaking pediatrician in Northern Virginia, many of his patients were the children of immigrants who couldn’t always afford to pay him. And he wouldn’t have told you that, payment or not, he took care of those kids and soothed their anxious parents en español.
He sometimes accepted payment in tamales.
Children of celebrities often take a deliberately different path from their famous parents. Perhaps they feel that the only way to emerge from their shadow is to go a totally different direction. My father’s father, Adrián Recinos, Sr. was a political celebrity in 20th century Guatemala: Under-Secretary of State in his early thirties, Ambassador to the United States during the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, a leading Guatemalan presidential candidate in the 1940s.
When the United States engineered a Cold War coup in Guatemala during the Einsenhower administration, it was Adrián Recinos, Sr. who was chosen to address the United Nations on behalf of his country. The whole world watched.
My father didn’t pursue politics, public speaking, or the limelight in any way. The whole world never watched him, even for an instant. I suspect that was just fine with him.
My grandfather spent his life thinking globally; my father spent his life acting locally.
He had started his career as Northern Virginia’s Spanish-language pediatrician, but over time his practice grew to include plenty of native English speakers as well. One young mother with two boys was referred to him when she moved to Northern Virginia. The exact referral from her pediatrician in southern Virginia had been this:
“You should take your boys to see Dr. Recinos. He’s rather swarthy, but he’s quite good.”
She did find him to be an excellent doctor and her boys liked him very much. In time, she married the swarthy doctor and the boys become his stepsons.
This was his second marriage and hers as well. He had already been a classic 1950s dad: wife, two boys, backyard BBQs, dog, home movies, gin and tonics. His two boys were now grown up and out of the house, and in this second marriage he became a classic 1970s dad: wife, her two boys, more BBQs, more home movies, more gin and tonics, plaid.
They each brought two boys to the blended Recinos family. Four boys was a nice even number and all agreed that four was plenty.
My dad was nearly 52 when I was born — a totally unexpected boy that put the total at an uneven five. Even though I was unplanned and threw everything out of balance, he always took it as a positive. He would often tell me that having me when he was an older dad kept him young.
And while I wouldn’t take credit for it, he did always look 15 or 20 years younger than his age. Even as his jet black hair started to turn, it melded into streaks of silver.
He was a generation older than my friends’ dads but he fit in just fine. Still, he wasn’t like the other dads. He never coached a team, never played catch, didn’t teach me to drive. That was all just somehow too “out loud” for him.
Our daily interactions were plenty, but much quieter pursuits. He enjoyed carefully segmenting a grapefruit for my breakfast. We would wash our big black carpet of a dog together. We shared a love for The Dukes of Hazzard. He never disciplined me, other than an ongoing concern about my poor handwriting (he was the rare physician with excellent penmanship).
He never yelled at me in anger. He never guffawed or laughed out loud. He was almost never ill and we never once heard him cough. (He told us the nuns at boarding school had trained it out of him.) Everything about his temperament was even: no highs, no lows.
I was in middle school when I watched my father fall apart. It was the early 1980s, and his second son, Bill, was hit by a truck and killed on impact on an Albuquerque freeway. Bill was weeks from finishing his medical degree and left a widow and two young boys behind.
My father flew away to New Mexico and made several trips back and forth. He always gave me his little packs of peanuts from the airplane when he returned home.
He had never been one for many words and now he said even less. Sometimes he would start crying in the middle of a sentence. At the dinner table. In the car. It would be brief and then he’d stop himself and just be silent. On top of the unspeakable grief, I could sense his shame in allowing his facade to crack. Neighbors brought us casseroles.
Most folks will say that he was never the same after Bill died. How could he be?
In retirement, he continued his steady pursuits. A health nut all his life, he visited the gym frequently and had a trim figure, nice biceps and six-pack abs well into his seventies. Our lawn was, and continued to be, meticulously groomed and the envy of the neighborhood. He enjoyed a good tan.
After a lifetime of taking care of youngsters, in retirement he focused on the other end of the spectrum: volunteering as a driver for Meals on Wheels. There was simply no better person to bring your daily cuisine than the gentle doctor who always had a smile waiting and a muted chuckle for your stories.
And though retired as a physician, he would still accept late night calls from a few select new parents. On one notable night, I called him in a panic from my home in Oregon. It was 2006 and our daughter was less than a year old. Taking the advice of a New Age baby nutrition book, we had given her mashed avocado and her body was violently rejecting it at length.
“What should we do?” I asked plaintively. His voice was exactly as it had always been. The same voice I had heard as a kid when he was on the phone outside my door at 2 am. Calm, friendly, concise:
“Next time…try applesauce.”
The gentle doctor’s only suggestion. It would be fine. Try not to worry.
After a lifetime of robust health, his last few years were difficult. Hearing loss made him even more distant. He’d often smile and nod when you said something, and you’d soon realize he was too simpatico to say he couldn’t hear you. His legs started stiffening and he walked with a shuffle. Always radiating heat in the past, he now had to wear extra layers to keep warm. He got smaller.
After more than a year of doctor visits and exams, we learned he was suffering from Parkinson’s.
In one of the exams that led to the Parkinson’s diagnosis, the doctors found something else: an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The nature of the aneurysm was such that it could be harmless forever, or it could kill him without warning at any moment. In a younger, healthier man the recommendation would be surgery to remove the risk. But my father was in his eighties, suffering from Parkinson’s, high blood pressure and heart failure. It was clear that heart surgery was riskier than just letting it be.
And yet for once, my normally rational father played against type. He could not just let it be. He became obsessed with the aneurysm. He referred to it as a “ticking time bomb” in his chest.
It was one moment where I think we could see into those deep, dark waters. He wanted it cured. Just as he had cured so many kids in his life. He believed, above all, in the power of medicine to heal — and he wanted to be healed.
As a respected retired physician in the community, it was easy for him to find a colleague willing to perform the surgery, and against my mother’s desperate attempts to stop it, the aneurysm surgery was scheduled.
A few days before the procedure, I gave him a call. I was sitting in the airport in Portland about to fly off to a client meeting. I started, as usual, by asking for advice about a concern with our now 3-year-old daughter. Having listened quietly to my explanation, he paused for a moment and then responded with that same exact voice:
“That’s completely normal. She’s fine. Don’t worry.”
I then changed subjects and let him know I was thinking about him as he was going into this surgery. I wished him the best and hoped he would recover quickly. I told him I was worried about him.
“It’s really not a big deal,” he said. “This doctor is the best. He’s done this procedure hundreds of times. It will be fine. Don’t worry.”
My father died on the operating table two days later.
In 2004, for his 85th birthday, we took my dad to Guatemala so he could celebrate the milestone with his two surviving sisters and his many nieces and nephews. It was a grand party at an arts center in Antigua, complete with dancing, music, a huge cake and a piñata. The revelry went late into the night and even now I can hear the peals of laughter. This family could always party.
Having been a good sport for all the toasts and ceremony and fussing over him, he spent the second half of the evening quietly sitting alone, nursing a drink, taking it all in.
Whenever you could catch a glimpse of my dad alone with his thoughts, his melancholy was palpable. And it was no different this night. Still, it wouldn’t be long before a relative came up to him and broke in. In an instant, his whole demeanor would change: he would smile, lean in to hear them, and chuckle lightly at their remark.
Perhaps he suspected this was the last time he’d see Guatemala. But if he had that thought, he never divulged it. He was never one for drama.
What do you remember about a loved one who has died? Perhaps it is an image, a moment in time, a glance, a turn of phrase. Maybe it is perfume or cologne that brings them back into focus. For me, after everything else has faded, what I will always remember about my father is the gentle doctor’s voice. Always kind, always clear, always solid.
“It’s ok,” he would say.
“Don’t worry. It will be just fine. Goodbye.”