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The Cruelest Gift

Inherited Disease in the Age of DNA
edition:Hardcover
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Sea Trial
Excerpt

My father’s effects were like flotsam on a beach, each wave leaving something behind as he weakened and died, until the beach was littered with his life. 

And there were so many John Harveys. The prairie kid who was happiest snaring gophers with his friends and crawling underneath the boardwalk on Main Street, who left home at sixteen and never came back, not even for his father’s death. The disillusioned high school teacher who borrowed money, went back to school and became a doctor. The photographer who filled our house with the smell of developers and fixers, and our family albums with images that were much more than snapshots. And the trophy-winning violinist and peripatetic physician who kept searching for the place where medicine was practised the way he thought it should be.

Getting a handle on a life like this one seemed impossible; there was always going to be something you couldn’t quite grasp. After he died, I took a lot of that flotsam into my own home and went gamely through it, sometimes laughing, occasionally crying. I spent a month classifying, labeling, judging, before distributing and disposing. Worst of all were the drop-offs at the Sally Ann, roaring away from the beaten chair and the obsolete stereo abandoned on a wet sidewalk.

For sheer tonnage, the photographs dominated, and that seemed fitting. Photography and music had been the passions that never faded, and he had left many pounds of meticulously labelled negatives and prints. Among the best were the black and white portraits of his fellow physicians, hand-made sixteen-by-twenties he had shot in a hallway, or an operating room, or the smoke-laden Doctors’ Lounge. My favourite bore a caption that typified the mordant sense of humour that my father tried to suppress, but never really could: in this portrait, the doctor is grinning, a cigarette in one hand and the other hand aloft, the thumb and first finger measuring off an inch or so of air.

“Just a small one,” the caption reads. “I have to operate.”

He also left bits and pieces from most of our boats. I went through mountains of nautical detritus in the freezing-cold shed behind his house, high-stepping over rusting garden tools and reaching around scary bottles of thirty-year old pesticide to get at the treasures. Rotting cardboard boxes rained hundreds of dollars worth of bronze nuts and bolts on my shoes. I unearthed a priceless collection of teak scraps left over from the costly rebuilding of a doomed deck; cans of questionable kerosene and long-solidified spar varnish; the rope and wood boarding ladder he’d made during his fear-of-falling overboard phase (this coincided with his fear-of-head-injury phase, when he wore a red motorcycle helmet while driving his convertible). One boat in particular was responsible for much head-scratching and even the need for a German-English dictionary: from Stortebeker III I discovered old Admiralty charts of Raoul Island, where HMS Bounty’s Captain Bligh and his men first made land after being cast adrift by the doomed Fletcher Christian, ceramic jars with cork-lined lids marked “Kaffee” and “Kakao” and even, stuffed into a black plastic back that showered me with rat droppings when I tugged it out of a high-up cranny, a threadbare Nazi flag. Stortebeker III had been built in 1937, in Bremen; there was no lead in her keel.

But the boat stuff was not so difficult to deal with. A lot of it, like the screws and the teak, went directly into my own boat stores, with silent thanks that I would never have to buy it. The coffee and cocoa containers were washed out and refilled. The rest of the household goods found their way to new homes, or to family shelves where they could bide their time for as long as it took for their new owners to die. I donated the doctors’ portraits to the Victoria Medical Society.

That left the papers.

My father’s papers (and there were a lot of them) were sealed in already-labeled cardboard boxes. I left those for last, finally working through them with a growing sense of dread. Most of them were no problem: letters, newspaper clippings about his early triumphs as a violinist, pristine instruction manuals for his many cameras, his own short stories and essays and even a few tentative poems. But there was one box I didn’t want to find. For a while I even thought it might not be there at all, that he might, in the final months before he was exiled to the nursing home and lost control over his own possessions, have managed to get down on his knees and enter the vile crawlspace beneath the kitchen, where I knew it was stored. I imagined him navigating shakily past the trap with the liquefying rat and the jumble of mouldy boat cushions, making it finally to the leaning pile of cardboard boxes to delete the one I feared.

I found it, of course. He could never have disposed of it even if he’d wanted to: it was too heavy. I shoved the box to one side, ignoring it until that’s all there was on the workbench: labeled like all the rest (he was a labeler), but more carefully than the others, the single word LEGAL written on one of those white adhesive rectangles with a red border, then licked and smoothed hard onto the cardboard so there would be no mistake about what was inside. The pain its contents represented had been impossible to contain, but at least the evidence was secure. Until now.

The tape yielded after a short struggle, and took some of the cardboard with it; he had sealed the box well. Inside were files, packed tightly, a solid cube of paper. I pulled them out in slippery handfuls, stacked them on the workbench, stomped the torn cardboard box flat; it was as frail, it turned out, as he was at the end. Then I began to go through the piles.

Work quickly, I told myself; be ruthless. You owe it to him to see what’s in here, but you don’t have to read anything. If he would never explain it all to you before, why start now?

The papers smelled of mould and neglect and, because I knew something of their story, of defeat. I began to go through them, a quick scan and then into the recycling box. Files of patients long dead, each in its own named folder. Photocopies of scientific papers from medical journals, none of them more recent than the mid-1980s. Long and ominous-looking transcripts in vinyl three-ring binders warped with age, and a thick bundle of yellowed newspaper clippings that I tossed without even looking. Printouts of some kind of manuscript, the lettering faded, on side-punched computer paper. I glanced and tossed, as though washing my hands of a corpse. It looked like the whole story was here.

And then, after about twelve inches, I gave up and began to go in reverse. The discard pile got smaller again. I couldn’t recycle or even shred this stuff, it was too sensitive. There were names. It must have taken him years to compile this dossier, with trips to the medical library, the archives, the stationery store for the recipe cards where every reference was recorded on its own little rectangle. Hydrocephalus in Children. Complications of Ventriculo-Atrial Shunts. The Practice of Law and the Search for Truth. Most of the reprints were heavily annotated, in orange highlighter or in his own neat hand; some of them were askew on the page. I imagined him, an unwilling student in his late seventies, cramming a heavy textbook over the photocopy machine, leaning on the cover, turning the page and doing it all again. I couldn’t throw this stuff away.

Pretty soon it was all back together again, a toxic little archive reconstructed. I grabbed one of the brand new U-Haul boxes, erected it and shoe-horned the lot back in. Then some packing tape, rather a lot of it, because I never intended to open the box again, and all it lacked was an unambiguous name. I took a felt pen and wrote the one he had already chosen for his own manuscript, on the top and on each side for good measure, so there’d be no mistaking it: THE TRIAL. Then I pushed it out of sight.

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A Doctor's Quest

A Doctor's Quest

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edition:Paperback
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Walk It Off

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edition:eBook
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