Monday, 13 January 2014

War and peace

My father in the trenches

My father was a man who worried about his children’s survival to the point of crazy-making.

If I ever told my father, I was going to Llandudno beach, for example, he would remind me that Llandudno was where sharks ate surfers.  Be careful in the water he would say. 

If I said I was going for a hike up Table Mountain, he would remind me how many people fall and die on Table Mountain every year.

Now that I am a parent myself, I know that fear.

But there is a level of anxiety that I have never experienced that my father knows too well. I am grateful I didn't see what he saw, and didn't have to do what he did. Although he loved his job and he was good at it.

After his long career as a surgeon, I had concerns about how he would take to the next stage in his life. I needn't have worried.

When I asked my father yesterday how his retirement was going, he said he was loving it.

He said that for his whole adult life, he had lived with the anxiety of wondering if his patients would pull through their operations, if he had made the right decision operating, and mostly if he had made the right decision not operating.

That anxiety was over now. He was free from the terrible responsibility he had.

My father saw how disease could fall at random on good people. And armed with just a scalpel, his knowledge of the terrain and his courage to act, he waged war on cancerous cells and rotting limbs on behalf of those people.  On the operating table, there was no time to be afraid, but afterwards there was lots of fear.

He took that terrible responsibility daily, often making tremendously difficult decisions under fire.   
In over 60 years of fighting, he saved thousands of lives, but not all the lives he tried to save.  And he suffered for the lives he saved and the lives he couldn’t. 

It was not an easy way to make a living. 

But I didn't see any of that as a child.

This is what happened every Sunday morning of my childhood.   We would go on family outings around the Cape Peninsula, in my father’s green Valiant.  Outings always started with a long wait in outside hospitals. Us four kids played for hours in the car-parks of the Monastery Hospital, Groote Schuur Hospital and mostly in the old Somerset hospital which had a pretty garden and a fountain.  You could sometimes see the patients in their pink dressing gowns on the balcony. 

I remember the sun was always shining.

And then my father would come out of the hospital and we would go on our outing.