It was the 18th Annual Convention of Doctors Whose Fathers Were Helplessly Dying. A soggy, humid night outside the Four Points by Sheraton, on Airport Access Blvd. in Tallahassee, Florida, while inside the air conditioning roared, cooling the forearms and necks of the men and women who sat gathered at the round dining tables with their white tablecloths, centerpieces of tropical flowers, and dozens upon dozens of water glasses, champagne flutes, cocktail glasses, beer bottles, wine glasses, bread plates, butter dishes, saucers and coffee mugs.
Over thirteen hundred of the nation’s premiere and severely grieving doctors were in attendance this year. It would be four and half weeks of speeches, break-out sessions, discussion panels, and meet-and-greets. Over seventy keynote speakers. A product expo, where doctors could shop medical and grief-related gadgets, online services, and mementos. Throughout the convention, there would be heard more accounts than imaginable of the ironic tension in each of the doctors’ lives — accounts of their early academic achievements, their hastened graduations from high school, their knockout scores on qualifying exams, their volunteerism, their double and triple majors, their summa cum laude diplomas, their internships, their application and acceptances to the country’s best medical schools — Johns Hopkins, Marquette, Boston, what have you. Accounts of the grueling residencies replete, invariably, with jokes about sleeplessness, burning the midnight oil, burning the candle at both ends — these doctors loved stock phrases — and amazing mentorships received from heads of staff, the deep sense of reward and demand as they fulfilled their dreams of practicing medicine: pharmacology, pediatrics, gerontology, gynecology, neurology, cancer-ology, and much more.
And a prime feature of the convention would be the incredible sameness in each of these professionals’ lives. Each story ended the same way. Each panel drew the same conclusions based on the evidence. Each meet-and-greet cemented around a common theme: the stultifying fact that now, despite all the intensive work, despite the sacrifices, despite the lifetime spent striving to achieve, no matter how many papers had been published in peer-reviewed journals, no matter how many degrees had been conferred and awards awarded, and no matter how many magazine covers they’d been on, and tech start-up boards of directors they sat on, and grants they won, and university departments they ran, and patents they owned, and pharma stocks they held….their fathers, each of them, all of them, lay helplessly dying.
“What is your father helplessly dying of, Rich?” Dr. Angelo Scillone asked his new friend and colleague, Dr. Rich Sturgeson, who had been seated beside him by arrangement of the convention organizers (a committee within the A.M.A. itself), following an idea that these noble professionals whose acumen was now violently shattered by the unsuspecting appearance of death within the inner-circle of their personal lives — that they needed most of all the freshness of a new face, the light banter of a new acquaintance, to provide succor.
“Prostate cancer,” Dr. Sturgess said. He had told Dr. Scillone to call him Rich.
“Brutal,” Dr. Scillone replied. “Stage?”
There was silence for a time. It was that tricky moment after the meal, when the doctors had eaten their cake but still a half hour had to pass until each attendee chose whether to visit the Night Owl Meet-and-Greet in the Saratoga Room or “turn in for the night for some shut eye” (as written in the trifold brochure that contained the “At-a-Glance Schedule” for the entire four and a half weeks), or the third, unwritten option, which hundreds would choose: to down scotches and wine at the hotel bar, or the overflow bar next door, called Scotty’s.
Across the room, one imposter lurked in the throng. One woman who knew not how to operate a laryngoscope, had never donned a white coat except at Halloween, and whose top desk drawer was not filled with pharma-branded prescription pads but with chewing gum and backup packs of Pilot gel-tip pens, in assorted colors: red, black, and blue. She, Ronalda Hertigan, was a journalist — a staff writer for The New Yorkman.
Hertigan, wearing a navy blue linen blouse and a string of real pearls, her hair tied in a conservative bun that she believed would ingratiate her to medical professionals, was seated at the Pfizer table (tables, were not numbered but sponsored). She had survived dinner without blowing her cover — managing to bluff a medically-minded affect by summoning the spirit of her favorite television doctor, the very Asian Dr. Gray herself, of Gray’s Anatomy, who had inspired Ronalda in a vaguely professional way in college, when she watched the show on DVR at a coordinated late-night hour with dorm-mates, blowing off steam after study sessions through indulgence in prime-time drama.
Hertigan’s table-mates were talking amongst themselves about where they were headed at 8:00. Hertigan smiled into the middle distance, pressing her earpiece more firmly into her inner ear canal — inside of which was a very delicate and complex timpanic membrane, she’d learned from Dr. Stacy Ackerman, ENT.
“Roni?” came the voice of her boss at The New Yorkman, Editor Todd Nuenvald. “Roni? Do you read me?”
“Every issue, Todd,” Hertigan snipped. Nuenvald often got the leading spot in the City Chat section, in which he spewed erudite vitriol at the White House or whoever deserved it most that week. City Chat was a signature section, going back to the magazine’s 1850 inception, and came immediately after the TOC and the 14 pages of Gucci ads. Just as often Neuenvald’s rather unsculpted musings on books, films, and music were pasted into the back of the magazine and passed off as criticism. Too, he could at any time spin a second-hand rumors about Mafiosi into the illusion of a think piece, garnering another 8,000 words to his publishing credit.
“There’s no time for jokes. What’s happening? Over.” Nuenvald was high-strung and demanding. His voice was book-ended by static bursts, which seemed to cast him in a robotic light, and sounded disturbingly near Hertigan’s own consciousness, the way it was delivered to her brain while he remained nowhere in sight. Espionage was not on the syllabus at Emerson, where she had gotten her MFA in Poetry.
“Dinner’s over,” she calmly reported. “Over.”
“Not this gag, please.”
“Just hold your horses. We talked about this. I do my thing after the drinks flow. They’ll be more receptive.”
She took the silence in her ear to mean appeasement. It was Hertigan’s task to line up, over the course of the four and half weeks, at least 50 doctors who were the sons and daughters of fathers helplessly dying, to write personal essays on their hardships — being that their loss was so entirely more poignant that the losses experienced by lesser professionals such as teachers, coal miners, and gas station attendants, all of whom knew and understood the reality of death and were awake to the possibility, indeed the inevitability, of its encroachment, its advance, upon their aging fathers and mothers. The New Yorkman published issues weekly but for twice a year, when two issues were combined into one, leaving precisely 50 issues per annum, and Nuenvald, as Editor-in-Chief, was so infatuated with the frisson between high achievement in the business of life-saving and the concomitant blindness, or denial, of personal vulnerability to death, that he had vowed to publish at less one feature per issue for the coming calendar year.
Everyone else was tired of it, but Nuenvald had carte blanche.
“Todd?” Hertigan said, smiling absently at her table neighbors, raising a water glass to her lips.
“Texting my brother,” Todd reported somberly, the solitude of the van in which he sat suddenly audible in the transmission of his voice. When he said “over” this time, Hertigan thought he might truly mean it.
Todd’s brother, she knew, was in Santa Fe, at the hospital.
“How is he?” she asked. Not the brother — Jorge (adopted) — but the father they shared. Who was… yes… helplessly…that thing which in seven months Todd couldn’t bring himself to say.
“Blood pressure bottomed out. A reaction to the antibiotic.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. Everyone from her table now lurched up and began lumbering across the room, hands over their bellies. Hertigan was left alone and felt freer to offer sympathy.
“He’s stable, I guess,” Todd said. “For now.”
Hertigan stood, looking about the room, where thousands of doctors were chattering loudly and pulling on blazers and shaking hands, punching each other’s digits into their phones so they could connect on social or text for a drunken meetup later or report to each other whether things were roomier and the service faster over at Scotty’s. Thousands of doctors but none who could heal Todd. Water, water, everywhere. Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Only she knew the extent to which Todd needed healing, having foolishly gotten involved with her boss for the sake of her career, and even more foolishly fallen in love with him — a sick of kind of pitying love that grew as his father’s Parkinson’s (or was it Lou Gehrig’s or leukemia or something else? — she really was medically not keen and didn’t always listen to him) worsened.
There literally was that one night when she was like, Todd, there’s something I have to tell you, and he was like, Okay, great, but first let me just tell you, I just got off the phone with my brother…etc., and I’m so glad you’re here with me!
“Where is the van parked, Todd?” Hertigan said. “I’m coming to you. Over.”
“Dammit, Roni,” came Todd’s angry voice. “Over. Over my dead body. Over. You get to that hotel bar and let the first doctor who’s grieving his helplessly dying father and who wants to buy you a drink buy you a drink. And you sympathize with his plight, and you gauge his capacity for declarative sentences that assert the florid hypocrisies of death-denial that is endemic in the medical profession, and you encourage his grappling at metaphor to capture the ironies of all he’s quote unquote taught himself…”
Hertigan heard a hollow metallic thumping behind Todd’s voice, a sound that puzzled her until the image appeared of him on his feet in the back of that van packed with audio surveillance equipment, pacing adamantly back and forth over the four or so feet available to him, presumably with his head lowered — pacing just as he had so often done across the floor of his 40th floor office with a view of the Flatiron Building and several of New York’s chicest mid-avenue seating areas. A floor where Hertigan and he had laid together, coitally. Todd paced because he cared.
“…And you hand that endocrinologist your card and mine and let them know that we’ll pay two dollars a word for the most sordid and conflicted account of medical acumen butting up against the helplessness of a dying father.”
“And then you do it again. Tomorrow night. And the night after that. And the night after that.”
He was positively inspirational now.
“And at the end of this four and half weeks, we’re going to have a publishing docket so chock full of accounts of learned, rational, educated, sane, reasoned, men; so robustly will our text columns overflow with tales by lovers of empirical data, the very disciples of science itself, each of them in the throes of bafflement, their every belief system upended, all they had relied upon overturned; shattered to have their own disillusionment shown to them in the faces of their helplessly dying fathers…”
“We’ll get this thing licked, Roni. I swear. I swear.”
Just then there was an explosion. The 18th Annual Convention of Doctors Grieving Their Helplessly Dying Fathers had been bombed. Not by a terrorist network. Not by ISIS. Not by Sinn Féin. Not by Hamas or North Korea or Iran or Russia or any of the other enemies of state. But by The Pacific Monthly, a magazine that was once for heady intellectuals and people of literary bents who wanted keen insight into contemporary issues and analysis of current events but had in recent years come to resemble a graphic novel with the novel taken out — a kind of image-driven assemblage of icons and nutty typography that rendered its editorial content indistinct from its ads. Editors at TPM had learned of Hertigan and Nuenvald’s infiltration of the convention, yet they themselves were too late to enroll. Like jealous lovers, they retaliated senselessly, violently. If they couldn’t have the stories, no one could.