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In this simple black bag was a world of objects which I had been forbidden to touch while I was growing up, objects that were always locked away due to their potential danger to immature hands...

One of the remnants of my prior life was my father’s medical bag. After he died, and when my mother sold their home and moved into a senior facility, she asked me to take whatever of their household belongings I wanted. My father’s medical bag was what I wanted most.

My father was a professor of surgery, but more dedicated to his patients than his research. When my son, Charley, who was to become a general and vascular surgeon, had the opportunity to look up his grandfather’s publishing history, Charley was disappointed to see he had published so little (perhaps this was what motivated Charley to publish so many papers during his own residency and fellowship?). Instead, my father’s expertise in thoracic surgery led to his developing complex surgical techniques. For example, he was an early practitioner of artificial heart valves and aortic patching. And my father always did patient rounds on weekends, no matter what. Even during ski season in Colorado.

One time when my husband and I were visiting Denver, my husband wondered if we could go to one of my father’s medical school lectures. After the lecture, my husband said he had no idea what my father had taught; it was inscrutable to him. Perhaps it was the content, or perhaps it was my father’s dry lecture style. But I, hardly a medical student, in fact understood everything because I had been raised in my father’s world, even if I was kept away from much of it.

Indeed, my father was remote to me, although a true intellect, as I aspired to be. He had been educated as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, undergoing its great books education, and he had graduated medical school at the early age of 21, during World War II. In addition to his medical profession, my father also had a strong interest in music, with a large collection of audio recordings. And he was also quite a good violist, carrying on something of a family tradition (his uncle had been a violinist in Toscanini’s NBC orchestra). My father and my mother hosted a weekly chamber group in our home, playing music that I of course can’t forget to this day. My father also had a significant interest in philosophy. His favorite philosopher was the stoic, Epictetus. And when my father became tired of the regular blood transfusions he needed toward the end of his life, he stoically chose to die rather than continue those transfusions endlessly. At the memorial service for my father, I noted in my eulogy that “before the internet there was Mel,” who seemed to be knowledgeable about every subject.

Taking my father’s medical bag into my studio, I pored over his instruments inside, and soon decided that they, like the household objects I depicted in my Domestica series, could serve as models for my art. As I turned each one over in my hand, I felt empowered by its precision, strength—and delicacy. There were tools for grasping, such as forceps and hemostats, and there were tools for separating, such as the scissors and scalpels. At first, I began to draw the tools in pencil on white paper, but after a while I decided that I needed literally to inscribe the images into the black paper, an effort in negative space. Before too long, I began to use a technique known as sgraffito, scraping my depiction of the instruments into black panels, a technique that seemed to me to be perfect for memorializing them.

Yet, it was not my goal to produce a photographic facsimile or a “medical illustration” representation. Instead, I began to realize that I was producing a series of portraits. Each with its own personality, a “character” that I used a kind of playfulness to depict. But sometimes, a tool would seem frightening to me. Yet, whether they sparked fun or anxiety, for a year I drew them obsessively.

After I had finished carving out over seventy examples, I sent my doctor son a spreadsheet list with images and asked him to confirm that I had used the correct names for each tool. After some delay, my son responded with a 99-slide Powerpoint file of…. surgical instruments. While I had been creating my impressionistic portraits of these, my son had been preparing, and presenting, a photo-realistic teaching “deck” of medical tools to instruct his first-year surgical residents on what each tool was and how it should be used.

A final note on this matter. My husband has always wondered why I hadn’t myself tried to become a physician. But my answer was that my father, for some reason, never encouraged me and, in a sense, his lack of encouragement had served as an effective discouragement. One time well after college, my father said, out of the blue, that he had hoped I would be pre-med. “When were you going to tell me?” I wondered back to him. But there was no answer, just as there had been no answer from him for me on many personal topics over time.

Ironically, my experience in a medical facility expanded greatly only when I almost died.


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