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Six Feet Apart

March 2020

One inch more than the measure of me, and one inch less than that of my father. It’s been a while since I lined up, back to back. But if I did, the space between us would only read two inches. Maybe less now that he is older. Nearly sixty. Closer to the next decade than the last.

It’s common knowledge that people shrink as they get older. Or at least I think it is. I also learned about it at white, upright tables with a lecturer projected on a glowing board: the cartilage collapses and compresses between vertebrae. Plus, osteoporosis: holes in bones. Not exactly, but that’s how I drew it on the corners of my notes. Giants shrink. Children grow.

I used to examine my father’s hands instead of holding them. I’d dam the veins and watch the swell. Move the knotty tendons hypertrophied from sailing and suturing. Before he was my father, he was a sailor. As my father, he was also always a doctor. When I was a writing major before medical school, I wrote a story about those memories. I wrote about a child led down the driveway on a summer night thick with crickets and the city’s orange lighting the horizon. We walked through the constellations. He told me their names, though now I can’t remember.

My father’s voice rumbles through the walls of his office where I’m borrowing an unused room to study for a test that will inch me closer to becoming a doctor, like him.

“Tell me, what’s been going on?” he says. Six feet and a wall away. I only understand the muffled words because I grew up with them.

He visited me the other day when I was still studying in the city, before quarantine sent me back to my high school home. We walked back from a restaurant. I showed him my right hand in the park. I hadn’t been rock climbing recently (just studying), but it was hurting. We passed through the open gate and sentinel trees to the sidewalk looped around the stretch of mostly dormant grass. He examined my hand. I demonstrated the tendon: thicker than a violin’s string, thinner than a shoelace tying thumb and forefinger together. He told me its name, though now I can’t remember.

I sit in the spare room of my father’s building, an urgent care center. An email arrives and silently informs me: the testing centers are closed. Indefinitely. I will not take the medical licensing exam I was scheduled for in ten days, the test that would have been the first legal step in practicing as a doctor. Across the hall, the urgent care center is performing their first COVID-19 test.

In the park, my father showed me the strictures in his palm between ring finger and wrist. Genetic. I searched for it after he told me, but now writing I had to look it up again, remembering only the common name, Viking’s hand, instead of the medical, Dupuytren’s contracture. We paused beneath a tall oak so he could model: stretching under pressure. If you don’t, it will contract eventually.

Someday I may have hands like my father.

Image credit: Quarantine Day 41 (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Stephen A. Wolfe

Maggie Mass Maggie Mass (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer

University of Illinois College of Medicine

Maggie is a third year medical student at University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, IL class of 2022. In 2017, she graduated from University of Pittsburgh with Bachelors of Science & Arts in English and biology. She enjoys creative cooking, bike rides, and hammock naps in her free time. After graduating medical school, Maggie would like to pursue a career in Emergency Medicine.