June 16th, 2019

On Father’s Day, a Tribute to a Father Who Isn’t Allowed to Celebrate Father’s Day

Part 1. My Father and How I Became a Doctor

I became a doctor with encouragement from my father.

Wait, let me rephrase that to capture what happened more accurately.

I became a doctor with a fair amount of pressure from my father.

Fresh off an adventure abroad, in my early 20s, I had all kinds of pretentious ambitions for my future. 

Screenwriter. Comedy writer for a hit television series. Stand-up comedian. Fiction writer, periodically tossing off stories to The New Yorker while writing The Great American Novel. 

Mind you, I had no idea how to make these aspirations actually happen. My writing output to that point included a few comedy pieces for the Harvard Lampoon (most of them in hindsight rather unfunny), and a piece in the Boston Phoenix (may it R.I.P.) describing my experience in a yogurt taste-test. 

“Go to medical school,” said my father. “You can do anything once you have your degree.”

Absent an alternative plan — and trust me, there was no alternative plan — who was I to argue?

Spoiler alert — he was right.

Part 2. My Father, and How He Became a Doctor

My father comes from a family of doctors — and that’s understating it. His father, his uncle, his cousin, his brother — all doctors. His mother was a nurse, but probably would have been a doctor if Jewish women could go to medical school in Moscow in the early 20th century.

(His sister also married a doctor. In hindsight, what choice did she have?)

Medical pedigree notwithstanding, my father’s path to his MD was not easy. Skipped ahead twice in grade school because of his precocious reading skills, he entered college at age 15. 

Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t ready for college life, and struggled socially and academically. Lonely, homesick, and with mediocre grades, he dreaded his own father’s visit during freshman year. Apparently, my grandfather didn’t take well to academic underperformance in his children.

But that visit never came. On the way to see my father in college, my grandparents were in a bad car accident. Both were severely injured, my grandfather didn’t survive.

It’s very hard to get inside the head of anyone, but imagine yourself at a university at age 15. You’re way too young, and already not doing well. And then this happens — your father dies, your mother injured. There are a million ways this story could go, most of them not good.

But my father’s response, amazingly, was to grow up — and to grow up fast. He doubled-down on his studies; he made friends. He applied to medical school — close to home so he could support his mother — and was accepted.

After residencies in both internal medicine and psychiatry, he became a practicing psychiatrist, and an esteemed teacher, jobs he truly loves.

I’ve always wondered if his college experience drove his choice of specialty, his desire to make something positive of the lessons learned enduring that trauma.

But that’s just the psychiatrist’s son speaking.

Part 3. My Father

Having married the unsentimental, smartest person in the world, my father can’t celebrate Father’s Day.

But I can do it for him, by listing here his best character traits:

Enthusiasm. The joke in my family is that my father will eat or drink something objectively mundane — a Ritz cracker, a glass of water — and stop conversation by saying, “This is the best water.” But the great thing about this enthusiasm is that it applies up and down the spectrum of experience, from those Ritz crackers and glasses of water to Chateau Latour, German expressionist art, 19th Century American literature, and tropical fish. (That last one ended badly, at least for the fish.) And as far as I’m concerned, we can’t have too many enthusiasts in the world — these are the people who brighten up the room when they enter.

A genuine interest in others. People invited to a dinner or other social event usually stick to the people they know, the familiar faces — it’s the easy route. But my father has always viewed the newcomers or strangers at these gatherings as fascinating sources of new life stories. He is deeply interested in others, and as a result is great company. And when you think about it for two seconds, it’s the perfect character trait for a psychiatrist. No wonder he loves his work, and is so good at it.

No detail is too small. There are “big picture” people out there who can’t be bothered with the small details. Then there are those who, on finding a topic they find interesting, can’t learn enough. My father is clearly in the latter camp, a voracious reader who delves deeply into a subject until he could practically write a PhD dissertation on it. You know that tower of books everyone has by their bedside? My father must be one of the few people on the planet actually to have read his entire stack.

Supportive of the people he loves. As I wrote last month, my mother went to graduate school and back to work when I was 11, leaving us three kids at home. (Sob again, but I’ve gotten over it.) In that Mad Men era, not all men would have supported this move, but my father did just the opposite — he became my mother’s biggest fan, constantly telling us and others how successful my mother had become. Let the record show he’s had the same attitude to all our personal and professional decisions — and in hindsight I believe he would have been fine had I not attended medical school, provided I was trying to do something.

So Happy Father’s Day, Dad! And I agree, those Ritz Crackers are great.

(Back to our usual Infectious Diseases programming next week.)



16 Responses to “On Father’s Day, a Tribute to a Father Who Isn’t Allowed to Celebrate Father’s Day”

  1. Mimi Breed says:

    Beautiful tribute to a great father. He certainly did a good job with you. (As did your mother, clearly, despite being unsentimental and “abandoning” the kids in order not to waste her brain.)

    Your faithful fan,

    Mimi Breed

  2. Cornelia McNeal says:

    Lovely, as always.

  3. Ben Sax says:

    You have captured our Dad brilliantly Paul – with a combination of wit, perspective and intelligence. Well done younger brother!!!!


  4. Bernard T. McNamara, MD says:

    Thank you for your wonderful thoughts on Father’s Day. My father “encouraged” me to become a doctor, and I have no regrets. I am grateful to remember him on this day, and every day.

  5. Libby Hohmann says:

    Great vignette. Made me think back on my dad, also a physician. One of his favorite lines to our largish family (which annoyed the daylights out of me as a kid) was “What have YOU done for the common good today?” (referring to both the family and humankind generally)

  6. Dova Marder says:

    Loved this piece, Paul, as you, clearly, love your Dad. Such a lovely tribute.

  7. Mike Marti says:

    Wow…made me sit down and pen some things I cherish about my father…well done.

  8. Kim says:

    My parents immigrated from Eastern Europe. Due to WWII from their lives from late childhood on wad filled with upheaval and displacement followed by the oppression of communism. My parents shared your father’s opinion regarding medicine. My father even said that physicians always enjoyed better conditions even in prison as you were useful and needed. (Every family had a member who had been a prisoner of war or for political/ideological reasons). It was their belief that the only thing that you truly owned was what was in your head. It had to be language and ideologically neutral ie science based. I don’t recall wanting to be anything but a doctor. ( The other given was that you had to be able to support yourself no matter what. For a girl who was born in 1962 this was not necessarily a given). Then I discoverec cinema in my senior year of HS. I announced I wanted to be a Film Editor. Parents were definitely not my cheer leaders. I continued my premed studies but added on film classes at UCLA, took acting and theatre classes at the local community college. Then I was accepted into medical school. The choice was not that hard. My father didn’t directly pressure me but was more pragmatic: medical school I would be financially supported but anything else I was on my own. It was my choice but with a good reality check. My brief but intense love affair with film along with a lifelong reading habit supplied me an appreciation for narrative that carries me along today. ironically my phone can now film and edit. It still can’t practice medicine.

  9. Stu Oken says:

    To paraphrase:
    ‘ We are certainly all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.’
    Thank heavens for the parents we have had.

  10. Lamar Austin says:

    Lovely piece, Paul, but I am confused why your father can’t celebrate. Did I miss something?

  11. Bruce Fisher says:

    Being a doctor isn’t the only thing that runs in your family. It is clear that being a consummate mensch is a Sax trait. Even we elders in medicine can learn from your examples. Bruce D. Fisher, MD, MACP, FIDSA, PGY-50

  12. Dany Carol says:

    Absolutely brilliant! You are, indeed, a writer, and a comedian. And a loving son with his father’s heart. This reminded me so much of my own dear dad, God rest him.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute.

  13. David Smith says:

    Dr. Sax became a writer after all. The story touched me. I am a mostly retired doctor who neither comes from a family of doctors nor has a family of doctors. Fortunately I made what turned out to be a wonderful choice. Thank you Dr Sax.

  14. Michele Rappaport says:

    Lovely tribute! What an honor! Joy in the simplest detail of a glass of water or a cracker, and he verbalized it! You were a fortunate young man and now you have such lucious memories.

  15. Stephen Weseley Breckwes @msn com says:

    I Notice a comment from Kim Oken. I had the pleasure of working with Dr O a phych around 1985 to95. Would love to tell his family what about him

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.