If only he knew. I grew up knowing that Daddy was one of those men in town who (whom? I never really know) everybody loved. The town "doc" for at first, 42 years, then again for another few. He finally retired for good last December at the age of 81. He spent his last few years as a physician holding his stethoscope to the chests of some of his oldest patients, who now spent their days in the nursing home. He had treated some of them for the entire life of his practice, and then after he retired in 1997, he was there to comfort their families when they died. So many folks missed him, he agreed to go back.
Though Daddy used to play some golf, his knees are bothering him a bit these days, so much of his time is spent in his favorite chair, napping and reading, watching Fox News, and holding Ruby, the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel my sister brought he and my mother all the way from Iowa a couple of years ago. (I will admit that this was the best present anyone has ever given them.) She is the best dog, cuddling close to him, happy just to sit, and he is happy to hold her.
Today is his birthday, and in celebration of all that he is to me, to my family and to the town that raised me, I'm going to try to post a story I wrote about him when he retired the first time. (It is a jpg, so it might take some adjustment to read, i.e: can your read sideways?) If you can't read it, email me.)
Daddy has a long distrust of journalists, despite raising one, so that fact required that before I wrote a word I had to submit my questions in advance, and for two days early in 1997, I sat with him, and with my mother, and talked to them about his years as one of three doctors in my tiny town. (In his last 10 years, he was the only one. ) What he didn't know was that I had been pulling stories out of him for some time. The result, I believe is my best work. Some of you may remember it. It ran in the N&O on Father's Day, and Daddy was so afraid of the backlash that he went all the way to Alaska to avoid being home when the phone rang. And he practically never goes anywhere. He would tell you that I fabricate. Of that, I'm sure. But perception has always meant the truth to me, so there you go.
At the time the story ran, people from all over the state sent him letters (back when people actually wrote letters, in long-hand.) Every day he received letters from friends and strangers, thanking him for his service, for being that breed of small town doc who cared for so many. "Why are they writing me?" he would ask when I visited. I knew, but he never seemed to figure that one out. One day, though, the letters stopped, and I think he was a little disappointed.
Some people wrote me, too.
One of his friends, Harry Carpenter, who died not long after the story ran, wrote this:
"Perhaps his family and friends can help him understand what a great man we see him to be, and perhaps we can show him how very much we appreciate his stewardship in taking care of ordinary sick folks. A few of these folks undoubtedly also appreciate the measure of the man, a great many more probably take him for granted, and a disoriented minority may have actually taken advantage of his good nature."
My brother is a doctor, and my nephew is learning to be one. On the day Kip graduates from med school in May 2012, he will be the third Graham Vance Byrum to have graduated from Wake Forest University, and from what used to be Bowman Gray School of Medicine. He has some very large shoes to fill, and I don't mean the size 13s Daddy wears (I think Kip wears the same or larger.) My husband, a pr flack, is already planning his pitch. And my sister and I will make sure our Daddy is there to watch his oldest grandson receive his stole. But my brother will tell you that neither he nor Kip will ever be the kind of "Doc" Daddy was. They just don't make them like that anymore.
Daddy doesn't have FB, but I posted happy birthday to him this morning, and so far a couple of dozen people have sent him good wishes. Carol, one of his former nurses who is about my age, says he does still come by the hospital to visit, and that they miss him. I think he misses all of them — his patients and office workers, his nurses, his medicine — as much as they do him.
Happy Birthday, Daddy.