My grandfather was a doctor. And for at least a few hours, he was convinced that I would follow in his footsteps.
I was seventeen years old, and aside from a brief flirtation with veterinary medicine, utterly uninterested in any career that involved scalpels and touching guts. I had discovered the joys of writing snarky op-ed pieces for the high school newspaper, performing in Woody Allen plays for the drama department, and smoking clove cigarettes with my girlfriend in her bedroom as we listened to Smiths’ records and complained about how much the suburbs “sucked balls.” To think realistically about becoming a doctor would require paying attention in my remedial biology class, and actually taking notes when my teacher explained the difference between mitral and tricuspid valves in the human heart, and worst of all, applying to at least a few colleges with a reputation for academia and not just schools where I was likely to meet girls who wanted to smoke clove cigarettes and listen to Smiths’ albums.
I might’ve been left alone to choose my own uninspired destiny, had I just managed to keep my big mouth shut. I’m telling you, the next time somebody announces to me that they have blood in their stool, I’m not saying a word.
My grandfather may have been many things, but he wasn’t an alarmist. He loved telling stories about the Great Depression and how he survived it. On the infamous “Black Tuesday” of 1929, one of the partners in his medical firm lost everything, and he committed suicide by throwing himself from the top story of their building in Manhattan. My grandfather delighted in describing every horrifying detail; how he just happened to glance out the window of his office at that precise moment and watched his partner’s body float past, like a marionette whose wires had been snipped by a sadistic puppeteer.
My grandfather, now alone in his medical practice and presumably penniless, did not join the national panic. He didn’t do anything. He just ignored his dwindling stocks and saving accounts and waited. “No good can come from expecting the worst,” he told his wife. “We’re just going to wait and see.” In the end, it paid off. It took two decades and one world war, but the stock market finally righted itself and he became a rich man (for the second time). At least amongst his immediate family, it appeared that he was a financial genius. His philosophy became our philosophy: Don’t make any hasty decisions, we told ourselves during any crisis, monetary or otherwise. Don’t draw too much attention to yourself. Just wait and see what happens.
From the outside, it might’ve seemed like we were being rational and patient. But as somebody who has been in the middle of it, let me assure you, it wasn’t nearly as cunning as it looked. We were just drawing on our innate animal instinct for predator evasion. We believed that if we remained perfectly still, bad things couldn’t find us. It’s something that most people unlearn when they’re five or six, or at least old enough to understand that hiding under a blanket won’t protect you from monsters.
To be fair, a little caution now and then can be a smart move. There must be something to it, because my grandfather died a much richer man than I’ll ever be. But there were times when his “wait and see” philosophy clearly wasn’t the best course of action. Like, for instance, when he realized there was blood in his stool.
“Grandpa is pooping blood?” I asked. It probably wasn’t the most appropriate thing to discuss during dinner, especially when my grandparents were sitting right across the table from me, but I wasn’t the one who brought it up in the first place.
“He’s not pooping blood,” my father corrected. “There’s just some blood in his stool.”
I didn’t understand the difference. To me, anything coming out of my anus that belonged in my veins was cause for alarm. “Shouldn’t he go to the hospital?” I asked. “It could be serious.”
Nobody said a word. My mother and my father and my brother just stared at their plates. They didn’t want to come out and tell me I was wrong. But, well, the person with the supposed malady had several medical degrees in New York State, and I was a kid who still regularly masturbated into all the fresh linens in the guest bathroom. It was painfully obvious who had the intellectual high ground.
I just shrugged, refusing to feel like the fool. “Whatever,” I said, making defiant eye contact with my grandfather. “If I had blood in my turds, I’d be getting my poop-chute x-rayed right now rather than packing my large intestines with pork chops. But you do what you want, gramps.”
The next day, he checked himself into the nearest hospital. And not unsurprisingly, it was something serious. Well, not life-threatening serious. Just a few polyps on his colon. It was nothing that’d kill him, but if left untreated, the polyps could’ve become cancerous.
He told the nurses that his grandson was the one who successfully diagnosed him, and they all agreed that I had the deductive skills of a future medical practitioner.
“That kid has intuitive smarts,” he told everyone who would listen. “He knew there was something wrong with me before anyone else picked up on it. If it was up to them, they would’ve waited until I was passed out in a pool of my own viscous fluid.”
When it became clear that my grandfather wasn’t going to die just yet, my family turned their attention to me. They huddled around me, whispering encouraging words about my inevitable future as a medicine man. “Your grandfather thinks you’re meant for great things,” they said. “You have the soul of a surgeon. You read his symptoms like an art critic studying Monet. You can see things that the rest of us can’t.”
And for a moment, I almost believed them. I laid awake at night and imagined myself a modern day Doctor Zhivago, but without the Russian accent or addiction to bad poetry. I could save the world with a syringe, and become one of those guys who women aren’t ashamed to introduce to their mothers. “He’s a doctor” sounds a lot better than “he’s a struggling writer who doesn’t make enough money to pay his own electric bill, but he sure can be charming if he thinks he’s going to get a free meal out of it.”
It took days before the spell wore off and I realized that I hadn’t made quite such a spectacular prognosis. I’d told a man in his 80s to go to the hospital after discovering blood in his stool. This is not something that a child prodigy in the medical arts would say. This is something that a person not suffering from mental retardation would say. To call my recommendation obvious would be an insult to the definition of “obvious”.
“But your grandpa is a doctor,” various members of my family would tell me. “He didn’t recognize the symptoms and you did. That has to tell you something.”
It does tell me something, I’d admit. It tells me that my grandfather is a lousy doctor. Which, to anybody who’d been paying attention, wasn’t major news. This was a man who had once advised my grandmother, his wife, against having surgery to remove the cancer in her gallbladder. On what grounds? On the grounds of “I don’t want to talk about it!!” I’m sure he was just afraid of losing her and thought that even acknowledging the cancer’s existence would mean admitting she could die. While that’s an achingly romantic gesture in a partner, it might be considered a character flaw in your personal physician. You don’t want your doctor to be huddled in the corner, cradling his legs and rocking himself and silently muttering, “Don’tleavemedon’tleavemedon’tleavemeohgodohgodohgodohgod.”
I was never one of my grandfather’s patients, which may have saved my life. I’ve never had a medical scare, but I can only imagine how he would’ve broken the news to me. “You see that spot on your x-ray? Yeah, I don’t like the looks of that at all. So why don’t we just stop looking at it and focus on happy thoughts.”
In the weeks after he left the hospital, he continued to insist that I was put on this earth to become a doctor. And I continued to insist that I’d be the type of doctor who accidentally invents a stronger strain of drug-resistant tuberculosis. I’d be the Dr. Kevorkian who didn’t intend to kill all those people. My bedside manner would be somewhere between “Whoops, my bad” and “You can’t prove anything!” If I saved anybody, it would be solely because of my ability to recognize the obvious. A typical checkup with one of my patients would likely go something like this:
PATIENT: My genitals are emitting an electrical charge. And I have a lump in my armpit the size of a conjoined twin.
DR. SPITZNAGEL: Really? That’s weird. You should probably have that looked at.
PATIENT: Wow, that never occurred to me. Thank you, Doctor Spitznagel. You saved my life.
Two years later, my grandfather died of a stroke. And I never predicted it. I was as surprised as anyone. Of course, I had already left home, and was safely nestled in a college dorm room in southern Wisconsin, enjoying the anonymity (and skunk weed) that comes with a liberal arts education. But even if my grandfather had managed to track me down, I’m not sure what I would’ve told him.
“You’re feeling numbness in your left side and you’ve suddenly lost the ability to speak? Well gee, gramps, I don’t know, that could be anything. Actually, just thinking about it has given me psychosomatic pains. Could we stop talking about it and maybe watch some TV? I’m sure it’ll go away.”
My prognosis would’ve killed him, but I still think he would’ve been proud of my hesitation. Just like I’m sure he was proud of the family’s stoic poise at his funeral. We tried (though we didn’t always succeed) to mourn him as he wished, by mourning nothing, smiling at the anxious crowd (so quick to panic, those mindless idiots), muttering to each other, “Let’s not jump to any conclusions. Yes, he does appear to be dead, but we don’t know anything for certain yet. Let’s just wait a little longer and see what happens. Just calm down, people. Calm down… calm down… calm down…”
Like every summer, my brother and I drove up to visit our dad’s grave. And like every summer, we waited to see if the dog would show up again.
It’s not the kind of thing we’ve talked about with a lot of people. What could we tell them? “Well, sometimes my dad comes back as a dog.” No, they don’t want to hear that. It makes them uncomfortable. And they never know what to say. “Oh… how nice… well, when you see him again, tell him I said hi.”
My dad died of a massive heart attack in 1999. It was brought on, the doctors told us, by an enlarged heart that’d gone undiagnosed for too many years. The cause of death inspired some people — usually well-meaning friends and distant relatives — to put a positive spin on our family tragedy.
“He died as he lived,” they’d tell us. “With a big heart.”
They were just trying to make us feel better, I suppose, but it only managed to piss us off. My brother and I didn’t want to be cheered up with idiotic aphorisms that put a positive spin on our father’s medical condition. So we stopped telling people about the enlarged heart and began announcing that he had, in fact, been killed by a colon parasite.
“He died as he lived,” we’d tell them, “with irritable, inflamed bowels.”
We buried him in a small cemetery in Michigan, just a few blocks from the house where he raised us, and invited only a few close friends and family members to join us. Nobody knew quite what to say. We just stood there and stared quietly at the grave. There seemed to be no point in comforting each other. We were angry and numb and nothing would make any of this okay.
And then a beagle showed up.
At first, we thought it must be somebody’s pet. But he had no tags of any sort, nothing to indicate who he might belong to. For a stray, he seemed unusually friendly. He moved from person to person, pressing his wet nose against their legs. He took a particular interest in our mother, trying at one point to climb her and lick her chin. He sat and watched intently as my brother and I lowered our dad’s urn into the ground. And at the end, he accompanied each person to their cars and waited for them to drive away.
We left the cemetery feeling strangely uplifted. And for a family of mostly agnostics, a little confused. Nobody wanted to admit what we were all clearly thinking; that the dog was our reincarnated father. But that didn’t make any sense, we told ourselves. It was silly, really. Did this mean we were Buddhists and never realized it? But even as the logical sides of our brains dismissed it as so much hooey, there was a small part of us that wanted to believe, that needed to believe, our dad had come back for one final goodbye.
The next morning, the dog was still the hot topic of conversation. Even the smallest detail took on special significance. We noted how the dog and our dad shared the same eye color, and how he’d completely ignored our aunt, who, even in life, he considered to be something of a bitch.
“Did you notice how he smiled at me?” I said. “Dad always used to smile at me like that.”
We wondered if the dog might still be up there, lazily napping near his grave. We couldn’t help ourselves. We piled into the car and drove up to the cemetery. And sure enough, the beagle was waiting for us. But something was different about him this time. He wasn’t the same lovable mutt from yesterday.
He was, well, kind of a jerk.
He snapped at our hands when we tried to pet him. He tore at our pant legs and pushed us to the ground. As we looked on in horror, he began digging at the grave, threatening to unearth our father’s remains. We jumped on him and tried to pull him away, but he easily slipped from our grasps.
“Oh sweet Jesus,” my brother whimpered. “Is he doing what I think he’s doing?”
He was. The beagle was licking his balls. Right in front of us. Right next to the tombstone! We tried to shield our mother’s eyes, but it only made the absurdity of the situation all the more apparent.
“C’mon, dad,” I screamed at him, regretting my words even as they left my mouth. “I know you’re single now and everything, but show some respect for your widow.”
We could think of two possible explanations:
1) The dog was not, and never had been, our dad.
2) Our dad, at least in the afterlife, was an asshole.
We never talked about it again, but we knew we had only ourselves to blame. One spiritual moment should have been enough for anybody, but no, we had to press our luck. If we’d just left well enough alone, we’d still have a pleasant fantasy to shelter us from the grief. But we were greedy, and got exactly what we deserved.
We still returned to the cemetery occasionally. Sometimes we waited for hours, jumping every time we heard a twig snap, gasping when any forest creature happened to catch our eye. Some days, we convinced ourselves that there was nothing magical about that dog after all. His owner probably moved out of town years ago. But that didn’t stop us from looking, and waiting, and hoping against hope that he isn’t gone forever.
A year later, our mom called and announced that was finished with grieving. She wanted all traces of Dad out of the house so that she could get on with her life. “I can’t be a widow forever,” she told us. She insisted that we come home immediately and haul away whatever we wanted from his belongings; the rest, she warned us, would end up in the nearest dumpster.
So my brother and I flew back to Michigan for an impromptu excavation. We took everything we could grab, clinging to the minutiae of his life like archaeologists at a dig. We hoarded pens, stationary, watches that no longer worked, expired batteries, anything that wasn’t nailed down. We wondered aloud what we intended to do with all this junk. My brother, giddy from lack of sleep and emotional exhaustion, suggested that we create a mannequin in Dad’s likeness and dress it with his clothes, still stinking of his sweat and DNA. And then we’d force our future children to treat it as a living, breathing grandparent.
“Do we have to?” We imagined our children howling in protest. “It’s creepy.”
“You march up those stairs this instant,” we’d screech back at them, “and you sit on your dead grandfather’s lap and you tell him you love him! If I catch you sneaking out the window again, there’s no Disneyland for you!”
We laughed so hard at our ridiculous, vaguely sinister predictions. We never said as much, but it felt like we’d made an unspoken pact, agreeing that having kids of our own would be a futile gesture. What, after all, would be the point? How could we look at a baby’s face without seeing a reflection of what we’d lost? Bringing another human being into the world would be acknowledging that life begrudgingly went on. And we were having none of that. (My brother would eventually break our pact, joining the procreating status quo and fathering a monosyllabic midget. But at least for one afternoon, we were on the same page.)
When reality doesn’t fit your expectations, sometimes you have to give it a gentle nudge in the right direction. For the first year after my father’s death, I would lay awake almost every night and stare at the ceiling and concoct elaborate conspiracy theories about how he’d probably faked his death. I had the entire pulp fiction scenario worked out, from how he’d bribed the coroner to fill his urn with pepper to his ties with a nefarious criminal empire — why else would a loving father abandon his family if it wasn’t to pay off a debt to the mob? I wasted afternoons daydreaming about his mysterious second life, and my tireless quest to find and capture him, like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, eventually spotting him in an airport and pursuing him through the streets of New Orleans, only to lose him in a crowded Mardi Gras parade.
It wasn’t like my head was stuck in the sand. I’d gone through four of the five stages of grief: denial, drinking heavily, writing terrible poetry with overbearing existential themes, and listening exclusively to Morrissey albums. Sure, I was taking my time getting to the whole “acceptance” part, but it wasn’t like he’d be any less dead if I waited a few years.
“Do you think he’s still up there?” my brother asked, as we sat on the floor of our dad’s office and did snow angels on a pile of his old sweaters.
I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“I don’t know,” I said, my eyes brightening. “You wanna go check?”
We couldn’t help ourselves. Without telling Mom, we slipped out of the house and drove the short distance to our dad’s final resting place. We’d barely pulled into the cemetery’s dirt road when my brother spotted him.
“Holy crap,” he exclaimed, slamming on the brakes. “There he is!”
He was a good twenty yards away, running through an open field like a convict that’d busted lose from a chain gang. We jumped out of the car and started yelling and waving our arms, trying to get his attention. He stopped and stared back at us, his head tilted uncertainly. We waited for him to gallop towards us and into our open arms. But instead, he turned and began running in the opposite direction, ignoring our cries.
“Let’s get him,” my brother said.
We jumped into the car and chased after him, following him through dusty back roads at frightening speeds. It never occurred to us to wonder what we might do if we caught up with him. What were we expecting? Did we intend to kidnap him? Lure him into the back seat and bring him home with us? And what then? Did we seriously think we could adopt our dead dad? Were we ready for the responsibility and inherent weirdness of taking care of a pet that’s possibly inhabited by the spirit of a departed parent? And was it possible that our reincarnated dad-dog might already have another owner, who rubs his belly and feeds him delicious doggie treats and picks up his poop? My brother and I both loved and missed our dad, but I’m not sure if we necessarily loved and missed him enough to pick up his feces.
There were just too many ways this could go wrong. We’d learned already how just a little scrutiny can end in disappointment. It’s easy to convince yourself that every floor creak and zigzagging shadow is evidence of a haunting, but turn on the lights and the ghosts usually evaporate. Wouldn’t too much exposure to this beagle just prove what neither of us wanted to find out, that he was an ordinary dog, and we’d just been fooling ourselves all these years?
What we really wanted, I suppose, was a proper goodbye. If he’d done it once, he could do it again. And we’d get it right this time. We’d let him lick our faces and comfort our mom, and we’d tell him all the things we never got a chance to. We wanted our lasting memory of him to be something special, something that we could tell his grandkids about someday. Not some stupid farce with an obnoxious beagle gnawing at our calves and cleaning its junk. We deserved more than that, dammit!
My brother and I said nothing, just stared at the dog as it disappeared from view. ‘Dad, don’t do this,’ I whispered. ‘Just give us one more chance. That’s all we want. One more chance. Just one more. One more. One more.’