To Dad with Love

Herb Fitterman at work

It’s been 2-1/2 years, and I still miss him.

My dad liked to hide things. Things like art. When it came to art, enough was never enough, but he knew that if he told my mom about all the paintings he purchased she would be upset, so he did what came so naturally to him and hid them. Then one day my mom and brother cleaned out his closet and discovered this cache of paintings hidden among his clothes. Curious, my brother called a few of my dad’s favourite art dealers, and it turned out that he was storing even more art with them, bigger works, and really, you had to laugh at the sheer scope of the thing. I was the greatest beneficiary, because my house had empty walls, and these hidden paintings were hung on them. That was how my dad knew the jig was up—when he saw all his paintings on my walls.

My dad hid his need for people. By choice, he had a small circle of friends, and if that side of him was lonely, he also hid that. His family, and that included my aunt and uncle and cousins R~ and J~, was perfect for him. He religiously showed up for Shabbat dinner at our house to check in with his two grandkids, and he showed up for dessert, too, because there was always dessert, and that’s something else he tried to hide from us, his complete and utter dedication to sugar.

My dad hid, too, his need to protect his family. It came out in his relationship to the house alarm. When we were growing up, he wanted it on during the day if we were alone in the house, and always at night, because an on alarm meant that my dad could go off-duty, that his shift of being on ever-vigilant alert was over for the moment. He could sleep knowing that the alarm was watching over us, ready to clang him into action should the need arise.

My dad hid the depth of his days at the office from us as well. And his skill as a surgeon. We’d only hear about this from others—from his peers, whose respect for his surgical abilities knew no bounds, from patients who out and out loved him. Are you related to Dr. F~, the eye doctor? people would ask. You are one lucky kid, they would say. He’s the most amazing doctor, went the familiar refrain. I can see because of him. He’s just the greatest doctor. I respect him so much. He saved my father’s-mother’s-brother’s-sister’s-aunt’s-uncle’s-my eyesight.

They were right, these people. My dad loved eyes, and even more, the people behind those eyes. He was at his most humane, his most profound, as an opthalmologist. There is a proverb, that the eyes are the window to the soul, and when my dad checked eyes, it was also like he was checking people’s souls, seeing right through to what really mattered. After an exam or procedure, he’d take the time and talk with patients, gently and with compassion, often with humor. He would carefully explain what was going on with their eyes, and in many cases, what he suspected was going on in their bodies.

He was a brilliant diagnostician. And a beaut of a surgeon. His hands were sure, and strong, and elegant. They were the hands of a man used to working in tiny, painstaking detail. He was also a doctor who held your hand, who you could trust would take care of you, who you could refer without hesitation to anyone who asked, Know a good eye doctor?

In spite of my dad’s fears and doubts and worries—and near the end, enormous amounts of pain—he never stopped working. His clarity of vision of what he was put here on this earth to do remained 20/20 till the end, and so he practiced his passion, and he did it perfectly, even if that meant hiding the graveness of his bone marrow blood disorder from his family, even if that meant being called a cantankerous old fart by us.

My dad also hid his incredible ability to fight. Most of his struggles were internal. Emotional. Spiritual. And in the end, physical. His first response to a request from us was usually no, but after kicking up a bit of a fuss, he’d get to yes. He found ways to do the things he cared about, and to be with the people he loved. My dad never gave up, not till the end, not till the universe said, Dr. F~, it’s time.

I’d like to think that at that moment, which was also the moment my children clutched his left hand and held it as they cried, I’d like to think that he did one more thing, his last act, that he passed on his courage, his fighting spirit, to each of them.

My dad was a hero, he was my hero, and I wish I knew that before he died so I could have told him how much I loved and respected and admired him. I can only hope that wherever he is, and I know that it’s a super-good wonderful place, he can hear it now.

You cantankerous old fart, I love you.


2 thoughts on “To Dad with Love

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