It was World War II. My father, Daniel Wilbur Myers, was teaching medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, so he was untouchable by the draft. Still, he felt compelled to make the world safe for democracy, and he joined the army, just as his father had done in World War I. Dan ran field hospitals in the Mediterranean Theater. He never talked about this, although he did express his admiration for British soldiers, who, as they lay dying, said no more than “It’s a bit sticky.”
I was born soon before he left for war, and I’m told I developed the habit of chasing soldiers: “Daddy, daddy! Are you my daddy?”—scaring some of them into beating a hasty retreat.
Father was rougher when he returned, probably suffering from PTSD, though he’d have scoffed at such a diagnosis. Mother was used to doing things her way, and my older sister was her co-captain. It was not an easy transition.
My father: sturdy, disliking fuss, dutiful, determined, and more than a bit obsessive. He believed that money was the root of all evil (he never charged many of his patients), and that stealing a penny was no more pardonable than stealing a million dollars. Even the Catholic Church’s teachings were more lenient, dividing sins, as they did, into venial and mortal!
I adored Father, though he was usually gone at work or fighting with Mother when he was home. However gruff he was, I knew he loved me. And I was in awe of his dedication to his job. He spent some time at the hospital every Christmas Day in order to support the staff and greet patients who were alone.
His greatest talent was as a diagnostician. He took time listening to patients, and saw so many—and worked with so many students—that his expertise grew strong in an area neglected today, the art of physical diagnosis. He was able to find answers using practiced eyes, ears, hands, and a stethoscope.
A fellow doc eulogized him in an article: “They don’t make them like that anymore . . . in the tradition of Dr. William Osler.” Another doc, at Dad’s memorial service, called him “the Pavarotti of physicians.”
I worked in his office one summer. He enjoyed explaining procedures to me, surely in hopes that one of his kids would enter medicine. (None of us did, though my sister worked in medical research.) One night, when Father was called to help another physician who was losing a patient (this happened frequently), I went with him. Peering through an open door, I saw him on the floor with the woman, having dragged her out of the bed in a desperate effort to revive her with chest compressions. She died, and I was left with wonder at his all-out efforts and a worry that he’d have a heart attack. He spent the drive home thinking aloud at what he might have done to save her—a lifelong habit.
Father loved good stories. A fond memory is of the rare lazy afternoon when we lay on twin beds in the parental bedroom, watching Red Skelton in an absurdly silly comedy, A Southern Yankee. We laughed and laughed. Skelton, playing a goofy Southern spy—actually a Union soldier—keeps repeating the password, “My, it’s nice to be back among the magnolias again,” at inappropriate moments. It became a family slogan.
In his eighties, Father was still an energizer rabbit, attending medical meetings, reading journals, and in constant movement away from the Death Star headed his way. I begged him to write or record remembrances from his long life, as his father had done. He’d cut me off with an emphatic NO. He could remember only the bad stuff, and whenever we were alone, he talked about his regrets, mostly his shortcomings as a parent, seeking an absolution that only he could grant himself, since he was not a religious man.
He died at 88, after crashing his car into a tree. The death certificate actually says “car vs. tree” under “immediate cause of death.” He lived a week in the hospital, having suffered a subdural hematoma.
On December 27, 1996, I got to Traverse City, Michigan, to spend some of his last days with him. We sang (he croaked) “The Victors Valiant” for the University of Michigan as they lost the Rose Bowl. I heard a haughty doctor, once a student of Father’s, speaking in front of him: “Such cerebral atrophy!” And I watched Father’s agitation and mumbling when his roommate, with whom he was unable to speak, failed to come back on time from a visit outside. The nurse said, “Oh, he’s worried about Willie. He’s late getting back for his insulin shot.”
I later wrote a poem cursing the insensitive Brooks Brothers–type doctor and praising Father for looking out for others while on his own deathbed. I am proud to have had such a role model, who used his particular skills to help others all his life, and who kept on doing so until his last breath.
A fine legacy.