My Father’s Desk

June 16, 2021

Appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home


Dawn. I tiptoe out of the bedroom so as not to wake my husband or the dogs. I pour a cup of black coffee and enter my small home office. The streetlight outside the long window casts tiny strips of light through the white shutters. No reason to open them yet; it’s still dark outside. Still standing, I place my big orange coffee mug on the stone coaster and switch on the desk lamp.

I lower myself into the gray leather office chair and roll up to my old wooden desk. The rounded corners and the desk’s blond wood are battered now, but there was a day when the finish was shiny and new, the corners were smooth, and the desk presided steadfastly over my father’s office in his pediatric practice.

He sat behind this same desk where I sit now sipping coffee and listening to my house wake up. Dad sat there for almost fifty years, counseling moms, talking on the phone, reviewing bills. I can still see him there, white coat, pen at the ready, listening and advising his black rotary dial telephone at hand.

His desk looked the same during entire practice: at one end, a wine-colored leather-bound accounts journal with entries in his almost illegible “doctor’s” handwriting. In another spot, a prescription pad. Recent issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Journal of Pediatrics. The only concession he’d ever made to modern times was an updated pushbutton phone. Otherwise, his desk ended its service with the same practical accoutrements he first placed on it in 1949.

Now, though, my huge twenty-seven-inch iMac screen rests atop the desk’s scarred surface, a red mug full of pens and pencils sits to the left, and a small Medicine Buddha to the right. At one time, this was where my father conducted the business of healing, and it’s now where I craft essays or chapters, the words sometimes healing old wounds of my own.

My father wasn’t the kind of man who watched football or went out with the guys. His focus was internal and his only real hobby was immunology. Like me, he was an early riser whose mind kicked into gear just before sunup. Most days he was at the office by 5:30, so he could sit at his desk reading immunology journals, partly to aid his diagnostic skills, but primarily for the fun of it. Decades have passed since these publications rested on the desk’s wooden surface. Now, my papers, calendars, sticky notes and writing books clutter the desktop, all tools of my craft, something I, like my father, also do for the challenge and for fun.

There was a time I thought my father and I had nothing in common. Our politics, our approaches to life and even our lifestyles belied our shared genetics. Sitting at his desk, though, I feel connected to him and recognize the ways we have always been alike. When I run my hands over the desk’s worn surface our shared past vibrates in every ding and scar. The spot where a five-year-old kicked the leg in a tantrum. The scratch where my dropped metal toy nicked its smooth surface. And the scrapes made by careless movers as they transported the desk from Rochester, New York to my first home in Florida and then my second, and then to my home in California. The imperfections mark chapters of my father’s life and mine, engraved in the grain.

For more than sixty years since it was first delivered to his office, the desk sat impassively, adding nothing but taking nothing, either. Now, this sturdy but average piece of furniture is my only remaining physical connection to my childhood home. My father loved his work, but he knew it required a sharp mind. As he aged, memory problems appeared, first minor and then more severe. He reluctantly accepted that he could no longer think clearly enough to care for patients, and gave up his medical practice. He was seventy-eight.

I can see him now, furtively clipping the medical journal articles detailing new studies on dementia and Alzheimer’s, scraps my mother found later squirreled away in the back of the desk’s drawers. He’d told no one. My heart breaks, thinking of his growing recognition of the reality and horror of his disease, of how he must have sat at this desk and made the decision to quit his practice. Of what that cost him. “What will happen to his desk?” I asked my mother when she called to say he’d be retiring.

“We’ll give it away,” she said. “Or do you want me to ship it to you?”

Intuitively, she understood that of her three children I was the only one who saw more than a battered old piece of furniture. Instead, I saw the repository of a new doctor’s hopes and dreams, the place where a young husband and father earned a living to support his family. My father hadn’t been easy—all three of us had endured his strong Sicilian parenting. We wanted a kindly TV dad, but we got a father who eschewed Dr. Spock in favor of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” As adults, my siblings seemed to hold no sentimentality toward him. His desk meant nothing to them.

But I saw Dad differently. As a young adult, I’d glimpsed his heart, that of a man who had been insufficiently and cruelly parented himself and who was doing the best he could. I’d been a confrontational and rebellious teenager, and he a strict disciplinarian, a fearsome figure to be avoided. But one day, just before I left college, he took my mother and me out for ice cream. I watched him sitting alone and quiet in the dusk licking his cone and I was overcome with sadness. He was lonely. I was, too: I longed for a stronger connection to him, but neither of us knew how to forge it. But once I’d seen his heart I could no longer hold a grudge.

I wanted his desk.

When Dad retired, I had already been away from our hometown more than twenty-five years. “Home” could have meant any of the apartments or houses or states where I’d since lived. But always, “home” was the place I had grown up and the things that were part of life back then. Taking my father’s desk meant I could anchor any place I lived with a piece of home. With a piece of him.

I told my mother to ship me the desk. And then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Our first family home was a two-bedroom apartment above my father’s medical office in Rochester. When office hours were over, I’d run downstairs to visit my father as he sat at his desk finishing the day’s paperwork.At home, he mostly raised his voice. At the office, he was kinder and laughed more. I was jealous of his young patients—they seemed to get a side of him that we didn’t.

Who knows, maybe I was claiming my father as my own when I went down those stairs to visit him a few times a week. I’d stand on the other side of the desk that seemed massive (at age four I could barely see over it) and he’d get up from his chair and walk around to greet me with a joke and a hug.

Many years later, my husband and I would drop in on him during office hours when we’d visit from Florida. My father would set aside his reading and come around the desk for an awkward hug. From childhood to adulthood, I had struggled to connect with him; his desk seemed to be some kind of quiet, stately presence, a mute witness to it all.

Today, though, even at more than four feet wide, the desk seems small, maybe too small. Every so often, I think about getting a larger desk, a new, modern one, sleek and shiny, but then I wonder, what will happen to this old relic? It’s not even an attractive antique.

I puzzle at my connection to this shabby old piece of office furniture that I hadn’t seen in years before a moving van deposited it at my Florida house some fifteen years ago. As time passed, I rarely visited my father’s office and had never thought about the desk. And yet some invisible cord bound me to it.

Standing on the right-hand corner of my desk is a photograph of me with my parents, the three of us smiling into the camera. It was taken in 1997, when my parents visited me at my Florida home. Dad was already in the grip of dementia but he’d hidden it well. We’re posed at a bayside restaurant near Tampa, an anachronistic place with fishnets hanging from the ceiling and a roaring fire, even in the summer humidity. Our happy smiles remind me what keeps us in any moment is that we don’t know what’s to come.

My father was deteriorating, but I didn’t want to see it. We laughed a lot on that visit and I have photos to prove it. He and I had worked through our issues over the years; or rather, I had worked through them, learning to see him differently. In doing that, I learned that he could be fun—that together, we could have fun.

My mother died eighteen months later. My siblings were busy with their lives, and for the first time, my father was entirely alone. Before we convinced him to sell the family home and move into assisted living, he visited me in California, where I had moved. On our daily walks, we’d talk. No subject was taboo.

“Are you afraid to die?” I asked him.

“No,” he told me. “I had the career I wanted, married the woman I wanted, had the life I wanted. I do miss your mother, though.” Tears formed in his eyes.

Later, when I told my brother about the conversation he admonished me for “making” my father cry, but to me it was a rare moment of connection, one I’d longed for my entire life.

Framed in silver, four photographs from his visit now sit on my office shelf adjacent to his—my—desk. In one, he stands alone, leaning against a Monterey pine, framed by the overcast sky and a gray Pacific ocean. His eyes are already clouded over in the pictures. That evening, in a restaurant, he went to the restroom with my husband and, fearing he couldn’t find his way back to our table, pleaded in a tiny voice, “Don’t leave me.” He would live another eight cruel years, his once keen mind clogged with disease. I sit at my father’s desk every day, and think of him most days. When I settle in to write, I feel his heartbeat in the grain of the wood.

Life zooms by, our family and our childhood homes left to memory. My parents are gone. I’m thousands of miles from my siblings. But when I feel alone and rootless, I sit at my father’s battered old desk—our desk now, and find home.

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