Monday, September 2, 2013


daddy's doctor bag sat in the back floorboard of his Ford for as long as i remember. he'd take it out for house calls, or when one of us was sick, opening up the brown otoscope case, popping on one of the the bluish-green tips before pulling open my ear to peer in it to see if i had plugged a nickle in there somewhere that was clogging me up. then he'd pop off the tip, flick on the penlight and ask me to say 'ahh', me hoping i could open wide enough so he wouldn't have to use a tongue depressor.

it was like an appendage to him, that black bag that never quite stayed shut. when he worked in the office, he'd go from room to room, ink pens lining the top pocket of his white coat, stethoscope and prescription pad deep in the pocket at his hip.  

on some days when Daddy was in the hospital over the winter, i would find myself in the cafeteria alone, waiting for him to to be bathed, to wake up, for the doctors to come by on rounds. on one of those days, i found myself trying to name everything that the black bag held, trying to hang on to this memory since i knew, honestly, that Daddy would never open that bag again and take anything out.

here is the list i made that day:
reflex hammer
prescription pad
blood pressure cuff
rubbing alcohol

as i made my way down the short list, i could feel the cool metal of the stethoscope on my back as he listened to my heart when i was a girl. i saw myself sitting in the kitchen chair trying hard not to giggle — and to hold my knee still as stone as he tapped it with the reflex hammer.

i couldn't think of the name of that thing he used to look into my ears, but i could see it. 
when i got back to his room, he was awake, and before long the speech therapist came in the room to place the speaking valve on his tracheostomy tube, to see how well he could tolerate it.

they had been doing this off and on, and on some days, usually when my brother or i was there, he was able to talk a little, his graveled voice not sounding much like his pre-hospital one. 

daddy, i said that day, i was wondering: what all did you keep in your doctor's bag?

and in seconds he began the litany: stethoscope. reflex hammer. prescription pad. blood pressure cuff. thermometer. syringes. Penicillin usually. alcohol. ace bandages. tongue depressors. otoscope. 

otoscope. that was what i couldn't remember. in all those weeks, though he seemed in and out of confusion at times, it took only a moment for him to rattle off the tools of his house call trade.

that day, my brother happened to swing by, and looking at him in his white coat i realized i'd never seen him with a doctor's bag of any kind. he was not Daddy's doctor, but even if he once or twice grabbed a stethoscope to listen to his chest, he took it from Daddy's bedside, not from one hanging around his neck.

to treat a patient these days, a doctor might grab sterilized gloves from one of the boxes on the wall, a syringe from a dispenser in the hall (well, usually the nurse does that), log into the room computer to print out a prescription. sometimes i wonder if all that is better than the laying on of hands my father required to do his daily work.

+ + + 

the morning after Daddy died, i went to his car and climbed in the back seat to take in his smell. the rubbing alcohol was there, and i looked around the floor board for the bag, but it was not to be found. made sense, since Daddy hadn't practiced in a few years, that he would have taken it out. seems i recalled that for awhile, it sat on the old chair at the door of my room, where he now kept his office.

back in the house, i looked and it was not there.

a few days later, my sister and i stood in our attic, looking around. there, on the floor was an old doctor's bag, empty and worn from decades of travel, but it was not his most recent bag.

my mother has been looking for the bag for weeks. she has a purpose for it, but though she has been through every closet and looked in every drawer, she's been unable to find the one thing Daddy used every day of his career. it's troubling, like if she opened their closet one day to find his yellow sweater missing, or that someone had misplaced the letter opener that has always been on the desk of the secretary right where he left it the last time he opened a letter. these are the small things that mean much to each of us. especially is doctoring tools.

it was saturday afternoon, and we had gone through closets and sat on the phone to india for 58 minutes trying to get the computer to work, only to find out we couldn't. we had gone through papers and a scrap book i had never seen (that's another post), and my mother, who is back on her feet now, gave me a roll of quarters Daddy had been saving for me since 1968.

then she told me how she had looked for the bag but couldn't find it.

i knew of nothing else to do but begin the search. so we opened the closet in my room and began taking things out.

a portrait of my grandfather from the bank where he served on the board. a box filled with tax returns. old coat hangers, skirts, a robe. a box filled with photographs, still framed, that had come from my grandmother's house. 

and from the clothes rack, a new vinyl satchel i had never seen. 

i lifted it off the rack, pulled open the velcro and the tears pooled in my eyes. the brown case that holds his otoscope— scratched from his own fingers, so many years of opening — two stethoscopes, the reflex hammer, all well worn and placed there carefully by my father's own hands, hung up like carpenter's tools, a long life of repair finally complete.

those who know more about these things than i do tell me that grief is like this. you go for weeks thinking now i've gotten past the worst of it and have worn out the tears and can go on my daily life without thinking of it, and then one small thing presents itself and there you are, weeping quietly over some small memory from childhood that hits your reflexes like a soft hammer to the knee. no matter how hard you might try to fight it, your throat closes tightens and there you are. there. you. are.

to me, it is like the mercurial atlantic. how one day, the air is still and the sea slick as ice, waves barely breaking, tiny ribbons of foam lining the beach where water meets sand. a day later, swells rise and fall but waves don't break, foamy tides climb up the sand, rip tides form, pulling just below the surface. and then you wake the next day and the sea roils, waves crash into each other long before they ever reach the beach, and you barely remember the calm, ice-slick day, from all the roaring.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.