Dr. Sullivan was the kind of man who’d appreciate an aged Scotch. He had this wry sense of humor and old-school way of being, as if he might refer to women as “broads.” Handsome in an educated way, he carried himself with a refinement that spoke to his East Coast credentials. When he laughed, it was in the moment, making it easy to believe he was behind you.

From the start, he was behind me. Among doctors, Dad was first, Dr. Sullivan a close second. Kind, soft-spoken, thorough, that was Dr. Sullivan. He had this great bedside manner that made him feel like family. Our closeness was rooted in a respect for doctors on my end — and a respect for Dad on his.

Growing up a doctor’s daughter, you’re part of the club. And even more so when you’re chronically ill. Neurology appointments equated to a backstage pass without the star power. He’d been my neurologist since I was 18, had ushered me through the lowest lows. On the days I dug deep, he was there.

It was a sunny day, late in the spring of 2005, when the phone rang. I saw the name on the caller ID and wasn’t the least bit surprised. I knew he’d be calling — and why. Dad had told me. I answered the phone with a sheepish grin, almost a laugh. This’ll be good.

“Hello?”

“Marybeth, Dr. Sullivan.”

He was the only person on the planet who called me Marybeth. I got a kick out of it.

“I understand you ran into my dad.”

“Yes, I did.”

“And he told you I tapered down.”

“I want you to know, what you did was reckless. It really was.”

“Responsibly reckless.”

I said it with a smile and hoped he’d hear it in my voice.

He must have, because he laughed.

“I would have told you at our next appointment,” I said.

“Well, you proved your point, didn’t you? You’ve been at 200 milligrams for a while. I wouldn’t go back up now.”

 

The conversation was rooted in concern. If I had to pick a dynamic for our relationship, that would be it. I viewed him as an uncle, he treated me like a niece. It was as if he might say, “Now, Marybeth, before you do that…”

Oh sure, he reined me in. Who wouldn’t? It was the sign of a good doc and a good man. His efforts came off as droll, not demeaning. He couched his statements in humor. Who doesn’t love a doc like that? I’m sure there were times he wanted to lecture me. He cracked a joke instead.

He was invested. So was I.

“Do me a favor and don’t drop down anymore, OK?” he said. “Two hundred milligrams isn’t a therapeutic dose for you.”

“It’s not?”

“Not really. At that dose, you may as well not be on medicine at all. Don’t mess with it.”

I promised I wouldn’t, and we said goodbye. After hanging up, I sat on the floor, pondering his words.

“You may as well not be on medicine at all.”

“Interesting,” I said.

But no one was around to hear it.

It was just an experiment. It seemed more an imaginary test than anything I was doing in real life. But every two weeks, I’d drop another dose.

A gentle hush fell upon the apartment, one as quiet as the moment demanded. All I heard was the pounding of my heart telling me to do it.

Rounds with Dad always started with the car. Six years old, riding shotgun in the 280Z. Metallic blue with racing seats in shoe polish white. Through the shadows of the elms, sunlight falls like confetti. I take in a breath and the scent of lilacs falls too. There’s the jutting of a sprinkler, a lone billowy cloud,  and that house where kids sell lemonade. We pass the church where Kate went to pre-K, and two blocks later, Mom’s all-girls high school. I crane my neck to glimpse the ducks on the pond. With none to see, I turn around. 

“Is it time?”

“Get ready,” Dad says.

Clutching my palm over his, I smile to know what’s coming. Radio’s off, window’s down, I can hear the whoosh of the breeze. 

 The engine revs. 

“Now,” Dad says, and we shift into third. 

There comes a thrust, a slight jerk forward, and the stick finds its gear. 

“That’s my favorite part,” I say. And Dad smiles.

 

____________________________________

 

In our family, Medicine took on a mythical persona. Like the morals of Aesop’s Fables, the myth lived and breathed in us. It sprang to life in the wide-open halls of St. Luke’s Hospital, where Dad saw patients. The building’s white pillars stood bold against the brick, and  the old clock tower rivaled the beautiful ones of New England. With its Puritanical austerity, St. Luke’s could have fit in on a college campus. Bordering the inner-city, its majesty was out of place.

 Rounds brought perspective to an idyllic life. I remember them in parts. The royal blue carpeting in the office. The dim glow of a lamp illuminating a room. The resounding stillness that hung over everything. I can recall oxygen tubes up the nose, the drip of an I.V., the synthetic scent of 1970s cleanser.

 For a shy girl, the fold of Dad’s lab coat made for the perfect cloak. Twirl your hair fast enough, you can spin yourself invisible. With a gentle nudge forward, he urged me to say hello. And St. Luke’s became a training ground for overcoming shyness. Extending their hands, the patients gave mine a slight squeeze. Many were elderly, and the softness of their skin still resonates. Looking into their eyes, I swam into a sea of acceptance. Sometimes I saw pain, other times a joy I was too young to understand. They always smiled to see a child come through. It must have looked like sunshine peeking through the clouds. 

 To go on rounds with Dad was to discover the humanity in Medicine, and in him. Rounds showed me not what a doctor should be or could be, but what it was. To meet the patients was to view the profession through Dad’s eyes. Compassion, love, human touch. I grew up believing that this was Medicine. That this was a physician. Because in our family, it was. 

 Dad moved from St. Luke’s to group practice on the East Side of Cleveland. In high school, I worked Saturdays, answering the phones from 8 to 12. When patients arrived for their appointments, Dad hugged them as if greeting an old friend. “How are you?” he’d ask.

 He put the emphasis on “you,” drawing it out for people he had known for years. The most special among them were the Italians his dad had delivered. Or the ones who started as his dad’s patients and became his own. They were family.

 Working at the office could feel like working at a bakery. People were always bringing sweets. Danishes, strudel, coffee cake. In summer it was bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes from the garden. Years later, I would learn it was payment from patients who couldn’t afford an appointment.

 That’s humanity.

 That’s Dad.

 I think of all the times I paid out of pocket at Dr. Sullivan’s, the insurance refusing to cover epilepsy. It cost $200 to get in the door. Where’s the humanity in that? With Dad as the barometer, it’s easy to see why my expectations were skewed. I thought all doctors were like him. In truth, no one was. He was the son of my grandfather, and there was no one like him. 

 Except his sons.

Right away I knew. Of course, you never really know, do you? Not with epilepsy. But I knew. For the first time in eight years, no aura.

Dennis came in on a revolving door. It ushered him in. More than a year later, it escorted him out. After New York, I never saw him again.

Gazing onto East Seventh Street four stories below, people looked like figurines. Some walked their dogs, others carried packages. One couple, holding hands, stopped to steal a kiss.

More than 20 minutes into it — with my nose fully fragrant and recess over — it hit me. I hadn’t gotten flashing lights in two months. The dizziness was my new aura. 

The dizzy spells came every month after that. They always lasted for 30 minutes to the second, it was weird. The blend of vertigo and pressure felt more significant than anything I’d experienced, and I couldn’t shake the notion that it meant something profound. 

I wish I could remember where my mind was that April morning when the weirdness began in earnest. Because the day started like any other, with more sunshine.