Back May of 2010, my mother called to let me know that my father was going into the hospital for minor surgery. There was nothing to worry about, and no reason for me to drive all the way there just to see him, especially since he was only going to be in the hospital for about a day.
My contrary nature, combined with my constant desire to exceed expectations, combined to make me seriously consider driving there anyway. I lived in eastern Connecticut, and my parents lived in York, PA, which is about a 5 1/2 hour drive, so it wasn’t a trivial undertaking. As it happened, this was a Sunday and I didn’t have a class the following week, so after talking to Ginger I decided to just go.
I called as I got close, and they told me the surgery had been a success and he was fine, but they had received some extra news, so I should just go to the hospital.
Between the time my mother originally called and when I got to the hospital, the doctors had run some tests, and they weren’t good. It took some time to confirm the results, but the diagnosis was clear — stage 4, grade 4, cancer. They gave him three to six months to live.
Before this story gets unnecessarily maudlin, let me mention a few things. It’s been over five years and he’s still here, though he’s fading away by the moment.
When he first told me the results, a look passed between us that was the culmination of all the years that had come before it. He understood what was happening and already accepted it. I understood that and was willing to go along with whatever he wanted. Even more, we both knew this wasn’t an emergency. It wasn’t like we had massive differences to resolve. We’d already been through all that. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, and we were fine now. All that was left was to make plans and enjoy each other’s company until the end.
As we get older, we re-negotiate our relationships with our parents over and over again. We go through stages in life, from child to adult to possibly parents of our own, while retaining our ability to drive them crazy. They transition from supreme authority to advisor to friend and even dependent, while still retaining their ability to drive us crazy. We change, and they change, and the relationship has to change as well, which all too often isn’t easy.
I returned to my home, of course. Those of you who have been through cancer, either personally or with a relative, know one of its most frustrating aspects is that everything happens in slow motion. You try a new therapy and wait before you can find out if it’s working. You run tests and wait until they show anything. You watch the quality of life deteriorate slowly, with occasional interruptions of good health and progress, before the inevitable sets in again. It can be a long drawn out process, except when it isn’t, which I imagine may be worse. I don’t know. I’ve only seen it this way.
Over the years, we got in the habit of visiting them twice a year, over the 4th of July and for Thanksgiving, and they normally came to us once during the winter, with maybe another visit if it was convenient for some reason. The initial diagnosis was in May, so the next time I saw him was in July. He took me aside and showed me what he’d done in the meantime.
First, he’d taken this picture of himself.
Morton Kousen, July 2010
It’s a good picture, which wasn’t terribly surprising. He’d discovered photography as a late-life obsession, and showed remarkable talent at it.
He’d also written his own obituary for the newspaper, which sounds a bit morbid but was in fact entirely natural for him. His reasons for both the picture and the obit were:
- Given the way the disease normally progressed, he didn’t think he’d ever look this good again
- He wanted to be prepared, at all times, for everything
- When he finally died, he didn’t want to leave those details for my mother to deal with
That’s my dad all over. He always had a plan and he never wanted to be less than perfectly prepared for whatever came, and he cared for my mother more than anyone in the world.
My father was born on August 2, 1938, near Washington, DC, the eldest of two sons of immigrants from Eastern Europe. He never liked the name Morton, so he went by Mort, which wasn’t much better. His parents didn’t give him a middle name at all, he didn’t have that as an alternative. My mother, Bonnie, was born in 1941 in a different part of Washington, DC. She was the eldest daughter of first generation US citizens. They married when she was only 19 and he was only 22, which is younger than my son is now.
He graduated from George Washington University with a degree in Pharmacy, which he mostly hated. He then enlisted in the Air Force and received his commission as a second lieutenant. He wasn’t a flyer — he worked in a pressure chamber, eventually getting an M.S. in Physiology at the University of Illinois on his way to becoming a captain.
Talking to him later revealed a lot about his life then. Once, early on, he was placed in command of a squadron. As a raw 22 year old he had no idea how to handle them. What he did have, however, was a very experienced master sergeant.
He called the sergeant into his office and said to him, “I’m in command and I can’t look like I’m not, but I know you have a lot more experience than I do. So I tell you what: you give me suggestions privately and help me out, and I’ll take everything you say seriously and back you up wherever you need it. At the end of the year, I promise you this. Whatever rating I get is the same rating you’ll get. If I do well, so will you. If not…”
Doesn’t that sound like management advice for the ages? It still makes me smile.
Needless to say, they got along well and both did well. My father was transferred several times (such is life in the service). The only parts I remember where moving from Champaign, IL (where he got his master’s) to Peru, IN and then to Del Rio, TX.
That last move wasn’t a happy one. He was hoping to go on and get a Ph.D. He was already accepted into a program in Amsterdam and was excited about relocating to Europe, though it wasn’t a sure thing. Instead, at the last minute, he was called into his commanding officer’s office.
“Instead of going to Europe, we’d rather you get promoted to Captain and move to Del Rio, TX. How would you like that?” the officer said.
“I wouldn’t like that at all, sir,” my dad replied.
Nevertheless, that’s where we went. When my father told me the story, I remember saying wistfully I wished it had gone the other way. I would have loved to have grown up in Amsterdam while he was working on an advanced degree. He just rolled his eyes and said, “sorry.”
While in Texas, my father became friends with an obstetrician. Like all Jewish boys of his generation, my father had always been interested in becoming a doctor. His friend offered to take him to watch a delivery, which he did.
(I’ve always found that rather remarkable. Were unqualified friends always allowed to do that? Did they get the mother’s permission? Was the fact that my father was an officer make any difference?)
The delivery was easy and successful and everyone went home happy.
“Is that what made you want to go to medical school?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I thought it was boring.”
He told me his friend offered to take him to one more delivery. This time there were complications, and an emergency C-section, and lots of things happening all at once. Still, the result was a happy, healthy baby at the end.
My father nodded to me. “That’s when I decided to become a doctor,” he said.
The military isn’t terribly flexible, however. They weren’t willing to send him, because he was thirty years old at the time.
My father applied to several medical schools anyway. He received a few interviews, including one at the University of Maryland.
When he went, the interviewer said, “why should we accept you over a 22 year old with your qualifications?”
“I don’t think you’ll find a 22 year old with my qualifications,” my father replied.
They accepted him. Then he went back to the military and told them he was in, so they should send him anyway. They said they could do that, but that the program resulted in a commission as second lieutenant. My father replied that he was already a captain.
“Make it lieutenant colonel and we’ll talk,” he said.
That wasn’t going to happen. They offered him a promotion to major instead, probably to forget the whole thing.
He retired from the Air Force after 12 years of service, and, as we used to say, we all went to medical school. My mother got a job as a teller in a bank, then as a secretary at a police station. My father studied during the day and worked as a pharmacist in the evenings. On the weekends, my mother used to take my brother, sister, and I scrounging around the neighborhood for bottles to return so that we could take the change and get ice cream from the Good Humor truck. We didn’t have much money, but we didn’t feel particularly poor, either. We also knew it was temporary, and that we were all in this together. My allergies and asthma didn’t help, but they didn’t matter, either.
On nights when my mother had to work late, my job was to take care of my brother and sister. I’d warm up the Spaghetti-O’s, make sure they started their homework, and sometimes put them to bed.
I was seven years old at the time. We’d never heard of “latch-key” kids back then. It took a few years of therapy before I even mentioned it, because I hadn’t realized it was important. I just can’t believe how lucky we were that nothing seriously went wrong, though my sister tells me lots of things were happening I had no idea about, which probably isn’t a big surprise.
After medical school, we moved to York, PA (this was 1974, I believe), where my parents lived ever since. My father loved, loved, loved being a doctor. He must have delivered tens of thousands of babies in the York area over the years, and while he got exhausted, he never minded coming in during the dead of winter to deliver another one. Since he was the Jewish partner in his group, he always worked on Christmas and delivered all the babies while wearing a Santa suit.
He used to tell me how lucky he felt that he was being paid to do a job that he would willingly do for nothing, and always hoped I’d find one too. It took me about 40 years before I could say the same. Heck, we’re all career changers in my family. My mother went back to school in York and became a nurse. My sister started off as a business analyst and later became a physical therapist (or physical terrorist, as she liked to call it). In fact, she just got her DPT (doctor of physical therapy). Now she’s Dr. Doll, which just adorable. (Just kidding, kiddo. :))
My father could obsess like nobody I ever met. He would pick a topic, or an issue, or even just where to buy a piece of hardware, and beat it into the ground. He’d read every review, talk to every person he knew about it, and check out every detail before making a purchase. It was, frankly, exhausting for those of us around him. The keys were “optimize” and “maximize”. The thought that he hadn’t done the necessary work to prepare was an anathema to him. He couldn’t bear it.
They say your greatest strength is often also your greatest weakness. In all my life, I’ve never met anyone who wanted to know more than my father. He felt this burning need to know what was next, in any topic, all the time.
It’s a great asset, but it could be very hard on the people around him, especially when I was a young boy who idolized him and desperately wanted his approval. Any time I accomplished anything, he would want to know what’s next. “And then what?” was practically a mantra. There was never any time to celebrate. I had to correct any deficiencies and move on. Plus, he would tell me that he always wished he’d been born with my natural ability to learn, which he thought was a compliment, but came across as a dangerous form of jealousy.
Particularly bad times would be when I’d stop working, for a variety of mental and emotional reasons. None of that made any sense to him. The thought that I was wasting my talent drove him up a wall. It took me literally years to come to understand that his pushing me to go further wasn’t really about me at all — it was how he drove himself, all the time. The inadequacies I felt at never being good enough for him were a child’s perception of an adult’s emotion that was never really directed at me anyway.
Once I was able to relax a bit and not worry so much about being perfect all the time, I could look for his approval without fear. To my considerable astonishment, I discovered I’d had it all along. Frankly, he never understood my confusion.
I tried to make a list of his “obsessions”, more hobbies really, over time. He attacked them with a passion normally reserved for military invasions:
- Chess. An early one, mostly before my time, but resulting in lots and lots of chess books around the house. I improved until I became his rough equal in high school and then leveled off. His style was to get bored and attack, just to see what would happen. My need to find the “right” move in every situation made those games tough, but we somehow managed to have fun anyway. About a year ago he was playing against my sister’s daughter and we finally decided to play again. That’s when I knew how old and sick he’d become — the fire was gone. He was almost defeated before we started. I hated it. We never played again.
- Radio controlled model airplanes. We lost our ping-pong table to that. He’d spend hours building them, then he’d fly them until they crashed, and start a new one. I can only imagine what he would do with today’s drones.
- Sailing. After a very brief experiment with a small power boat, he decided he wanted to learn to sail. He read everything imaginable, bugged all his friends about it, and over the years went through a series of increasingly large sail boats. I never liked sailing (even less with his persistent intensity around), so that was inflicted much more on my sister than me. My mother hated sailing more than I did, but of course she went with him until he became too old to do it any more.
- Photography. Like everything else, he read tons of books, talked to experts, and attended courses on it. At that point he would need friends to transport him to the destinations, because he actually couldn’t sit that long anymore, much less drive. Still, he was extraordinarily good. One of his photos actually won the Grand Prize at the York Fair one year, and several others were sold at charity auctions. (I’d show them here, but I don’t have them locally. I’ll do that later.)
I’m sure there were more, but that will give you an idea. The obsessiveness came out even on little things, though. One day I was in his kitchen, reading something, when he wanted to know about a computer problem.
Everyone in I.T. becomes the system administrator for their families, whether they want to or not. That has the unfortunate side effect of forcing you to deal with computer systems so horrible you normally wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole. In my family, that added another layer to the family joys of Thanksgiving, knowing that my father would have a list of accumulated problems he’d want me to solve, “but no pressure”. Yeah, right.
One day I was sitting in the dining area reading something. I don’t remember what it was. It could have been as silly as catching up on my Twitter feed, but I was wrapped up in it and didn’t to leave.
“I’ve got this software that isn’t saving properly,” he said. “Maybe you could take a look at it.”
“Sure, when I’m finished this.” I replied.
But it wasn’t okay, of course. He sat there for maybe five minutes, and then went over to the computer, opened that software, and proceeded to read all the menu items, one by one, out loud, as if daring me to ignore him.
I was older, though. I acted like I didn’t hear him, at least for a minute. Then I heard one menu option in particular.
“That could be it,” I said, angry for responding but unable to help myself.
“I’ll go check the one in my office,” he said.
“Give me about ten minutes and I’ll come in and help.”
I managed to stall for most of ten minutes, but eventually I had to go. He was in the process of his third reboot, with the Windows 98 (shudder) disks in hand because of problems. In fact, after talking to him, I couldn’t believe he hadn’t destroyed his entire computer. Somehow we got it working though, even if we never quite fixed the original problem.
My father faced his illness with an upbeat and positive attitude that I found amazing. It never got the best of him, by which I mean cancer might have ravaged his body, but it never claimed who he truly was. Even more, he could rally for short periods of time when he felt it necessary. Here’s my favorite relatively recent picture of both of us, taken at my niece Jessica’s Bat Mitzvah in April, 2013.
One last story. When my father was diagnosed, I had just begun work on my technical book, Making Java Groovy. I’d actually been working on it for a couple of years, but my original publisher cancelled it. I’d moped around for a month or so, and then managed to get it accepted at Manning. I’d just started at Manning the previous March.
My goal was to somehow finish the book in time for him to have a copy. The diagnosis in May of 2010 made that look unlikely. He was just hoping to survive into November so he could make his 50th wedding anniversary.
(He made that, of course. He’ll just miss his 55th.)
The initial attempts at radiation didn’t really help, so things were looking bad. Then they switched to a particular chemotherapy drug, and he improved almost immediately. That bought me time. Heck, it bought all of us time.
I hadn’t realized that by moving to Manning I was going to have to re-write the book almost from scratch, but that’s what happened. The book took me years to write, and was eventually published in September of 2013. My plan all along was to get a picture of him holding the book, but for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, I never took that picture. I made sure he got the first copy off the presses, and he showed it to his friends, and celebrated it with me, but for some bizarre reason it never made it into a photograph.
Like everything else, though, it didn’t matter. I knew he had it, and he enjoyed having it, and that’s enough. The most astonishing part, to him, was the dedication. Here it is, in full:
To my father, Morton Kousen, MD,
who taught me everything I know about dedication,
persistence, and facing the future with a positive and
upbeat attitude, despite whatever pain and difficulties lay ahead.
He will always be my best example of what a man should be.
I wrote it while I was at his house, as part of the last steps of preparing the book for publication. That meant I had to write it and then not tell him about it for almost three months until the physical book arrived. He was blown away by it, which of course was the idea. I still don’t think I got it quite right. It still comes across as a bit awkward to me. But it was, and is, good enough.
He’s still not quite gone. Last weekend he went into the hospital and nobody expected him to come out again. In fact, the ambulance drivers last Sunday didn’t want to bring him home because they didn’t think he’d survive the trip. He’s been lingering at home, not accepting any food or water, for eight days now. I didn’t know that was even physically possible. At least he’s got enough morphine in him to stop a charging rhinoceros, so I don’t think he’s in pain any more. We’re just waiting for the end.
When he was first diagnosed, he told me my job was to give the eulogy. He felt it was important to him professionally to keep what he was actually like to himself, because he didn’t want it to interfere with his job, but when it was over he wanted people to know the truth. As a result, I’ve been thinking about this for over five years now, off and on, and this blog post is part of the result. I honestly thought I would have given it by now. I also feel that even though I’ve given you some idea of who he is, I’ve left so much out. He always put on such a bold, commanding front, but underneath he was such an incredibly gentle man. He could, and did, talk to anybody, and he did so with decency and respect regardless of position or what they could do for him. He also had very little patience, and a strong temper, and made astonishing social blunders.
In the end, though, he’s my dad. He did his best, and he cared about all of us deeply, and I’m very grateful for that. When he was first diagnosed, we exchanged a look, and I think we both saw this day, and it was good enough.