- The White Spot
When I was nine, my parents went through a bitter custody battle over me. In the end, the judge decided that I should live with my mother Mondays through Saturdays and go for visits with my father every Saturday night and Sunday. Back then, my father was on call at the hospital seven days a week, and he had no one to look after me during the hours he had to work, so he started bringing me to the hospital with him on Sundays and keeping me in the break room on the same floor where his patients were located.
The break room was only about the size of two closets. It had a coarse, plaid sofa, a low-hanging, spherical leather chair, a coffee maker and mugs, a sink, some cabinets, a telephone, and a laminated poster above the telephone that was called Screening Guidelines for Invasive Carcinomas, which was put out by the American Academy of Pathology. That first day in the hospital, which was my first time in a hospital since birth, I tried to sit up straight on the plaid sofa and read one of the sports biographies I carried with me everywhere, but I couldn't concentrate at all. My mind kept wandering, wondering what my father was doing—where exactly he was and who he was with.
My father never talked about his work, not during his residency, not now, but I knew a few things about what he did. This was because, starting a couple years earlier, I had skimmed through the back sections of two of his medical books and seen pictures of sick pulmonary patients. I had seen many pairs of lungs that were removed from their bodies after death and photographed. One such pair, which had belonged to a person with emphysema, had an oozing, gray coating over the usual healthy red color. Another pair of lungs had holes, caused by black carbon deposits that were the result of smoking. I had also seen a smoker with a gangrenous, partly lopped-off foot, a smoker with a gaping hole at the base of his throat, and a smoker with no tongue in his mouth. [End Page 34]
In my own shy, optimistic way, I took pride in the fact that my father treated lungs. Lungs were vital—and underappreciated. I thought of them as the unsung heroes of the human body. Unlike the much-celebrated heart and brain, no one ever talked about the lungs, and yet we couldn't last four minutes without them. They took in and released breaths every three seconds or so, usually without our ever noticing. They moved oxygen to the bloodstream and removed carbon dioxide. They kept us going, even when we were sleeping.
After I had been daydreaming for more than an hour, my father, who was a big man—six-feet-two, a hundred-and-ninety pounds, with curly black hair in a white lab coat and brown Wallabes—came back into the break room, sat himself down in the low-hanging chair, and crossed his legs, his feet close to my feet. The air conditioner wasn't working right that day, and there were beads of sweat on my father's forehead and odoriferous spots under his arms. His breaths were quick and confident. He had just seen all his patients, and he had to write up some notes. As he went through page after page of triplicate paper with a blue ballpoint, checking boxes, scratching words, signing his name quickly at the bottom of each page, I half-hid my eyes behind one of my sports biographies and pretended to read.
I was very curious what my father was writing on those pages—one white, one yellow, one pink—but I didn't dare ask. I had decided it was best not to talk to him at the hospital unless he talked to me first.
Finally he asked, "How's Roberto Clemente?"
"He died trying to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua," I said.
"Yeah, I remember that," my father said. "You ready to get out of here?"
My father got called into the hospital...