I can think of only one proper way to begin this tribute to my father, and that is to retell his two proudest achievements from the 1970s:
- He was Chief of Staff of Mount Sinai Hospital.
- He played his clarinet at the Guthrie Theater.
For years David defined himself with these two touchstones, at least to immediate family. He would drop the phrases into conversation––“former chief of staff, played clarinet at the Guthrie”—when he wanted to emphasize who he was, not that the issue was ever in doubt.
Mount Sinai was a small, highly regarded, and much loved Jewish hospital just south of downtown Minneapolis, founded at a time when the city was awash in anti-semitism and a safe haven was needed. The office of Chief of Staff rotated annually among the established physicians. I think the duties were more ceremonial than consequential, at least by the year of my father’s experience. I remember him attending more meetings and his picture appearing in more photographs than usual. Nevertheless, after his term ended and receded into personal history, I think David looked at the title as a credit of his accomplishments in medicine, which were considerable.
The old joke was that the internist knew everything and did nothing, but David was part of the generation that overturned that rule. He installed pacemakers, he opened blood vessels with balloon angioplasty—he knew everything AND did everything, or at least quite a lot. I can still picture him in the radiology suite, propping up an X-ray study of someone’s heart and coronary arteries, and saying, “Look at that, Joey, the vessel is the size of a pin prick, it’s amazing that any blood gets through at all. Then voila (props up post-procedure X-ray) we pop it open with the balloon and blood is flowing beautifully.”
My father loved being a cardiologist. He loved knowing exactly what to do for his patients, and he loved doing it, and he loved sharing the world of medicine with students, nurses, and anyone else who would appreciate it.
Over the years I’ve heard many stories of praise for my father from his patients, especially those whose lives he improved dramatically or saved outright. But most of these stories were second-hand; rarely did I meet these people. Professional that he was, David kept his patients’ privacy and never discussed them by name. Sometimes he would bring home their gifts—baked goods, usually, or a basket of fruit.
“It’s from a grateful patient,” he would say.
As for his playing at the Guthrie Theater, that was astounding.
Some background: The amateur theater company at the local Jewish Community Center was staging a one-act play called “No Mourning After Dark.” Music was written for a solo clarinetist to fill the black-outs between the short scenes, and the role fell to my father. He was first-chair clarinet in the JCC orchestra, and he played quite well.
The show was a big hit—entered into contests, won awards. The culmination was a one-night engagement at the Guthrie, the largest and most prestigious house in town, where it was billed with another play as an evening of community theater. Tickets sold out quickly. Minneapolis was, and remains, a hotbed of all sorts of culture, the performing arts included.
So the play is staged, and we (meaning me, my mother, my brother Danny) watch from our seats in the balcony, feeling a little nervous for David. His costume may be helping both him and us. He is dressed as an old-world Jew, in a peasant’s shirt and a hat and a long fake beard—a true disguise and radical departure from his everyday persona. I remember him playing flawlessly, exactly the same as in all the other performances. If he is nervous or anxious, he never lets on.
At the conclusion, the actors take their leave, one by one, to the cheers and hosannas of the audience. The Guthrie has a thrust stage, meaning it thrusts into the audience seating; there is no curtain. My father is the last to depart, he turns his back and continues playing as he walks into the shadows. And as he exits, the applause swells. Really swells. The applause had been loud and raucous all along, but for David it becomes doubly so, at the sold-out Guthrie Theater. Sometimes I can still hear those cheers, even in my living room in Massachusetts. Even without my hearing aid.
These last few years have been hard—very hard—because David seemed to be fading away, losing himself bit by bit, piece by piece. In the end, he was left with the love and appreciation of his family, beginning with wife Maggie, and then the children—me and my brother Peter, and Meghan, and Michael Meagher—and our families, including the grandchildren, and siblings and extended family and good friends. Over the years, my wife Druh repeatedly pointed out that David was aging with tremendous grace and maturity. He never complained about his advancing infirmity, never bemoaned his losses, always grateful for the life he could still enjoy, whatever form it took.
I remember a few years ago, David was excited to go canoeing with me and my son Maxwell. Not really a good idea, because he was not agile enough to get in and out of the canoe without considerable help, but off we went to Lake Calhoun (as it was known at the time.) And…he struggled, and he needed all the help in canoe entry and exiting that we could offer, and it wasn’t exactly an easy afternoon. When it was over he told Maggie, “Well, I guess I’m not going canoeing again.” And that was that.
He never complained.
Writing this piece has reminded me how active my father was, back in the days when he was the Noble Poppa and I was the Loyal Son, caught up in all the escapades. Astute readers may notice a pattern in the following accounts.
All those summer weekends on the sailboat on Lake Minnetonka, with David as captain at the tiller, and me, the first mate, pulling all the ropes in the front of the boat, and fetching beers and fruit from the cooler chest. David made fun of the sailboat racers and anyone in a motorboat. He loved sailing because the boat moved fast in the wind and the water splashed over the sides, and he’d whoop and holler when that happened.
All those clarinet performances, including musicals for which he played in the pit orchestra, and classical music concerts, and impromptu chamber music at family parties, because so many of us played an instrument. When he was in a musical—Oklahoma, Can-Can, Fiddler on the Roof—he kept regaling us with the songs.
All those bike rides on summer evenings, trips around Lake of the Isles with a stop for ice cream, with David carrying Peter in a kid’s seat, and Teddy (who lived down the street) carrying Lisa or Michael, and us older kids pedaling along on our own.
And all those family vacations, to Miami Beach for the sun and Colorado for the skiing, and eventually the long car trips across the country, to Yellowstone and Yosemite, and to Quebec and Cape Cod. On the road we rarely stepped into restaurants, it was picnic lunches at the highway rest areas. Cold cut sandwiches with mustard and a slice of cheese, but David somehow elevated them into gourmet cuisine.
“Nowhere in Nebraska,” (or Iowa, or the Ohio Turnpike, or wherever we were at the time), he would say, “is anyone eating any finer.”
I remember at the bowling alley, when David rolled a strike, he did a little dance to celebrate.
In the 1980s, I did my darnedest to follow in my father’s footsteps (not to mention those of his father, my grandfather Reuben) and become a physician myself. My three years in medical school were progressively painful and unsuccessful, and they ended suddenly and dramatically, like a plot twist in a bad soap opera. I remember, during those years, some conversations with David in which he was reconciling that I was not exactly the successful medical student that he (and I) had presumed I would be, and as time went on, that a medical career was looking less and less viable. It was tough for me to acknowledge; it was tough for him as well.
So my own proud achievement has been to recover from that trauma and build a good life for myself, with a job and a family and a house and even a novel to my name. I am grateful for my own sake, of course, but also for my father’s. He could be proud of me again.
David had one big request for his final years of life, and that was to live them at home, and not at some institution. His wife Maggie granted this request, day in and day out, and it was not easy. She deserves a lot of credit—a professional nurse who found herself with one full-time patient.
One more story I want to tell. One more story is not enough. But here it is:
September, 1979, David and I load up a few of my possessions into a small but trusty Toyota Cressida (formerly his car, now passed to me) for a drive half-way across the country to Stanford University in California, where I am an incoming freshman. The drive is long and grueling, three days in an aging compact across countryside that with every mile seems to get drier and drier, and bleaker and bleaker. Day three is the harshest: Four hundred miles of the alkali desert of northern Nevada, spotted by tiny towns with gas stations and not too much else. It’s hot, it’s dusty, it’s (seemingly) endless. David and I take turns behind the wheel, mostly in silence. There is no radio worth listening to. Eventually we reach Reno, and then the Sierra mountains and the blissfully cool pine forests. With the sunset shining in our eyes we finally pull into Sacramento.
I assume we’ll grab a bite to eat somewhere and go to bed. But David notices a lawn sign for, of all things, a Greek festival.
“Let’s go to the Greek festival!” he announces happily.
So just like that, we’re at the Greek festival, held in an orthodox church in some neighborhood. Women in the cafeteria line serve us souvlaki and stuffed grape leaves and baklava, and there is music and dancing. Throughout it all David has this big grin on his face. He sways in his chair to the bouzouki music. He drinks the ouzo.
Later, on the drive to the motel, David sees, just across I-80, a miniature golf course.
“Let’s play some miniature golf!”
“Sure!” he says. “What else are we going to do?”
So we play miniature golf. The course is full of elaborate hills and humorous obstacles and light-up signs and I forget what else. We are the last customers of the night.
For the next two days, the trip continues onward just like this, as if David has a light bulb in his head that doesn’t turn off. He keeps finding things to do and things to enjoy. We stop for dim sum in Chinatown in San Francisco and for a Dungeness crab at the Los Altos Fish and Poultry Market. At Stanford he makes friends with the parents of my just-assigned roommate, and we all head out for drinks at Tresidder Union. He helps me open a bank account and buy a bicycle and rent a refrigerator for the dorm room–it’s all a grand adventure.
Throughout the next four years, right up through graduation, David keeps coming to visit me, and we keep taking in tourist attractions—the Egyptian museum, Napa Valley and the wine country, the Winchester Mystery House. Bookending the school year are the drives to and from Minnesota, which keep getting more interesting. Detours to Estes Park in Colorado (horseback riding), Las Vegas (George Carlin in concert at the Tropicana) and the coast of Washington state (on a fishing charter, we don’t catch any salmon but together haul up a nasty-looking shark.) To name just a few. He loves it all.
In hindsight, I expect David had unspoken reasons for visiting me so often. The break-up with my mother would come in 1984, when I was home from college and just before I cannonballed into medical school. Which is not a story for the present….
Any regrets? I feel for my sister Meghan, her baby boy due in April, and I know she feels sad that her father does not get to meet the baby and the baby will never know his grandfather. All I can say is that I know that the little boy has David’s blessing for a long and wonderful life. With two fine parents, he’ll be off to a great start.
I am now a husband and a dad and a professional science editor—all titles earned after the days of miniature golf and Dungeness crab with my father. I did not become a physician; I gave up playing the clarinet. Still, every now and then, I notice myself channeling my father in subtle ways. If the room is dim and I’m trying to read something, I’ll say “Let’s put a little light on the subject.” Or if one of the boys is acting up, I’ll say, “What are you doing? Also, stop it immediately.” These moments, when I notice them, always make me happy.
As David walked down the staircase every morning, he would sing the Noble Poppa song, as if his arrival belonged in high opera. The lyrics began majestically and then trailed into gibberish, a proclamation of regal family order to start one’s day, with subtext that one shouldn’t take such order all that seriously. I do not sing that song. But if I concentrate, I can hear the echoes of my father’s voice, from a thousand miles and half a century away.
David, you were a great man and a wonderful father and grandfather. As you wrote when Danny died, “Farewell, and may God be with you.”