My dad taught me how to swing a golf club at an early age. No, not with the overbearing nature of an Earl Dennison Woods. Robert Mooney Jr., a brilliant emergency physician with a respectable high school swimming career, never wished to live vicariously through my future sporting exploits. Perhaps having personally authored the genetics of scrawny paleness into my genetic constitution, he knew a losing battle when he saw one. Like his father before him, Robert Sr., a hardened amateur pugilist shaped by the Great Depression, my dad never expected physical greatness from me.
In fact, Bob Jr. never told me how I was supposed to end up. He certainly never told me I should be like him. In high school after a couple of bad experiences at the hospital as a patient, I snottily told him that I would never want to become a doctor. He smiled, telling me, “Son, I don’t blame you one bit.” Yet, here I am less than a decade later, studying medicine at my father’s alma mater, where every morning I walk by his groovy 80s countenance framed alongside the equally hirsute members of his graduating class. And, in the most appreciative of ways, I blame him every bit.
When I was old enough to carry my own golf clubs, my dad would occasionally take me out to a public course in Castro Valley, California, where he’d put up with my handicap for nine or 18 holes, depending on which side of daylight savings we fell on. One balmy summer afternoon, we drove through the Caldecott Tunnel, passing one of my other favorite childhood haunts — The Knowland Park Oakland Zoo — on the way to the golf course. At hole one, a narrow, bending par four with aquatic and arboreal hazards aplenty, we met up with the other half of our foursome — Pete, a mild-mannered, ginger-haired man no older than forty and Linda, an intense thirty-something with a lady’s prim visor and a lumberjack’s vice-like handshake. It was apparent from the get-go that Linda wasn’t a social golfer — she was out for blood. Pete, on the other hand, was congenial and talkative, summarily striking up a conversation with my father, who gave me a knowing glance before hitting his first tee-shot — a towering drive that perfectly crosscut the left-dogleg and softly landed in the center of the fairway. Of what he knew, though, I was oblivious. Shrugging, I teed up, hit my drive, flung my bag straps over my shoulders and started hiking toward the ferny quagmire to find my first shot. “Offroading already,” I groaned. We were off.
With Pete seemingly engrossed in conversation with my dad, I (perhaps guiltily) sought to similarly engage Linda in some good ol’ fashioned golf talk. Spinning through some tired tropes in my mind, I decided to talk about the climate. “With this humidity and these ferns,” I said, “I half-expect a velociraptor to spring out of the woods any second.” Now, I was ten and had just the week before watched Jurassic Park, and my ten-year old logic told me that she obviously loved Spielberg’s masterpiece as well. “Excuse me?” responded Linda, looking at me as if I were crazy. “Nevermind,” I mumbled red-faced, hacking through the ferns in search of my ball. Maybe I came on too strong with the velociraptor bit. Linda looked away, and that was it for our conversation — for the entire day. No way this mental kid was going to get in the way of her course record. Of course, I was also a little shit, so I could hardly suppress a smile when her second shot hit a cart path next to the green and bounced triumphantly onto the street, pinging dangerously close to an elderly woman just minding her own business on a daily walk. “You might want to take a provisional,” I said to her, smugly, before taking a drop and launching a beautiful approach to the center of the green.
The rest of the round, I stuck with Pete and Dad. Pete was much nicer than Linda, and could clearly carry on a conversation about subjects at least as interesting as Jurassic Park. On the fifth hole, he volunteered that he was a member of the Fitzpatrick Family of Breads. Or, was. He had long been estranged from his family. My father told him he was sorry to hear that, and Pete told him not to worry about it, that it wasn’t his fault anyway and that if it weren’t for the Kennedy assassination, his family would be singing a different tune about him. He could reveal no more to us, Pete concluded, sorrowfully. My father nodded in apparent understanding. As for me, I was beyond fascinated — what did this guy know about the Kennedy assassination that no one else did? But I quickly bottled up my curiosity when I saw Pete’s expression — vacant, baleful and full of loss. This was clearly a difficult subject for him. But, as if snapping out of a trance, Pete’s face quickly brightened and he proceeded to ask us if we wanted to hear about the time an invisible alien batted down his tee shot on hole nine. Clearly a man after my own heart, I thought. Emboldened by having a playing partner with an imagination like my own, I decided to ask him what he thought of Jurassic Park. For the record, he agreed with me. My dad flashed me his knowing look. Meanwhile, Linda was shaking her head at Pete, betraying a look of distrust. “She must really hate Jurassic Park,” I thought.
The rest of the round was pretty “par for the course,” so to speak. My dad gracefully navigated the course with a swing plagiarized from Ben Hogan’s Illustrated “Five Lessons of Golf.” When I wasn’t buried knee-deep in Jurassic ferns, I would try to mimic my dad’s swing, hip wiggle and all. My game improved as the day went on, and I even miraculously holed out a chip on seventeen. To my chagrin, Linda had rebounded nicely from her starting debacle, and played near scratch golf from the women’s tees the rest of the way. Pete wasn’t too shabby himself, shooting somewhere in the nineties and providing some of the most colorful commentary I’d ever heard on the links. For some reason though, from hole five on out, Linda avoided Pete like the plague. I didn’t think anything was wrong with Pete. Sure, he often interrupted his grand stories with the same vacant gaze I first noticed on hole five. And yeah, he occasionally spoke of JFK as if he knew him personally. And sometimes, he would matter-of-factly point out instances on the course where aliens had clearly altered his shots. My dad didn’t act like anything was unusual about Pete. Pete certainly didn’t act as if anything were out of the ordinary; in fact, his face was expressionless most of the round. My dad treated Pete like any other gentleman, so I simply followed suit. Plus, I thought that “aliens” made for a brilliant, hilarious cop-out for an errant golf shot.
After the round, we shook hands and parted ways, Linda to her bright blue Volkswagen (of course), Pete to the clubhouse for a beer and Dad and me to his GMC Suburban (Priuses weren’t exactly in vogue yet, give us a break). I quietly loaded my golf clubs into the back of the car, and hopped into the passenger seat next to pops. I waited silently for an eternal minute (maybe a record for 10-year-old me), before blurting out, “Dad, what was Linda’s problem with Pete?” My dad gave a thoughtful pause before carefully choosing his words. “Linda didn’t trust Pete because she didn’t really know him, Trevor. It’s natural to feel that way about strangers.” But, ever the pithy little shit, I quickly pointed out to dad that you and I liked Pete, and we didn’t know him either. At this point, my dad saw no reason for further evasion. Letting out a sigh, he told me Pete was ill. “Oh no!” I said. “What’s wrong with him? Does he have cancer?” My dad shook his head. No Trevor, he explained, Pete has schizophrenia, an illness of the brain. He has a hard time telling the difference between what is real and what is not. I sat there, dumbfounded. “Is that why he kept on talking about aliens?” I asked. My dad nodded his head.
I spent the remainder of the ride silently grappling with this notion — that Pete’s stories weren’t just stories to him. My thoughts drifted back to the first hole, where we first met Pete. I remembered Linda and the mortified look she gave me when I mentioned velociraptors. I remembered Pete and how quickly he opened up to my father. But most of all, I remembered my dad and the knowing look he gave me before I sent my golf ball on its first tour of duty in the fern quagmire. As our car pulled up the driveway, I finally turned to him, “It’s cool that you were there, Dad. You knew Pete was sick the whole time, but you acted like he wasn’t.” “Exactly,” my dad said, looking at me with pride.
Proud of what? I couldn’t tell you at the time. For heavens sake, I just spent an entire golf round using my pitching wedge as a weed-whacker. “Dad, you weirdo,” I said. I hopped out of the car and ran inside, hoping that my older brother was around so I could brag about that chip shot on hole seventeen. The rest of the round, in my mind, wasn’t worth mentioning. And I didn’t remember it until 12 years later, when I came across my dad’s yearbook photo as a first-year medical student.
Sometimes, I forget that my dad’s yearbook picture hangs in the first floor hallway at the medical school. I’ll rush right past it, late to lecture, hoping I can sneak inside the lecture hall without incurring the wrath of our block chairs. Just as I wasn’t the greatest golfer at 10, I am not by any accepted standard the greatest medical student at 23. No one would look at me and say, “Hey, there goes Dr. House.” I’m by no means irrevocably wedded to any specialty yet, but I have been slowly building an interest in psychiatry. In light of this, perhaps it isn’t so surprising nowadays that when I do stop by his portrait, my mind wanders to that balmy Jurassic afternoon with Pete, the schizophrenic.
Maybe shave some of Dad’s 80s flow, push back the hairline a couple notches and add some speckles of “distinguished”-tone gray, and that’s exactly the smile my dad gave me in the car many years ago. It is the smile of a proud man, someone who has just taken the Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm,” and who vows “to remain a member of society, with special obligations to all [his] fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” And, many years and many patients later — when his 10-year-old son was able to quit being a little shit for just a fleeting moment, to recognize the compassion it took to honor this vow — his pride broke through. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned a valuable lesson that day. My dad certainly knew it. His smile said it all.
To this day, thanks to my dad, I am a huge Ben Hogan acolyte. I’ve perfected the grip, the stance and the patented waggle. I keep my hands close to my body, and I don’t avert my gaze from the ball until steel meets plastic. It’s been a long time since my dad beat me out there, and I don’t plan on changing that aspect of our relationship one bit. Not that he ever cared. He may have told me how to swing a golf club, but more importantly, he showed me how a great doctor acts — with unwavering compassion, on and off the wards.
I don’t know if he saw a future doctor in me that day on the golf course. Yet here I am, where he once was.