Skip to content

Good Medicine

After my father died in the mine shaft, they left his body on our front yard next to the white roses. The milkman stepped over him to drop our bottles on the stoop, and rapped on the door for my mother: Ma’am, there’s something you should see. I was four.

When I try to remember his funeral, all I can fish out is the burn of sun on stained glass. Catholics believe in something called the Assumption of Mary. This means that when the Holy Mother died, she left no body. God swallowed her whole. I’ve always appreciated this concept; in the years following my father’s accident, I sometimes wished that he had evaporated instead. That God had taken him in his palm, folded him into light. This seemed more dignified than the alternative.

I had an operation to get a small brain tumor removed recently, and that sort of thing often invites introspection. By the time the anesthesia wore off, it was around eleven at night. My surgeon sat on the edge of the bed with my glasses folded in his lap. He handed them to me, and I put them on. Everything was a bit too sharp.

How’d I do, Doc?

He didn’t laugh, but I could tell he wanted to. Oh, you were brilliant. You should have seen it.

He happened to be a quasi-colleague of mine—we ran in similar circles in the local medical community. Though my job was to shrink heads and his was to poke a scalpel in them, I think we shared a sort of camaraderie. He told me the surgery was successful: the grape-sized mass had been fully removed. I ran a hand over my shaved head and found a stitched-up incision at the base of my skull. My fingers stilled over the thread—this is keeping my brain from spilling out, I thought.

When you looked in my head, I asked, what did you see?

He propped his elbows on his knees. The fluorescents tinted his face a hypothermic blue.

I think what I meant to say to the surgeon was this: my sister, who was born a few months after the mining incident, was named Georgina for my father. More than once, she complained to our mother that I should have been the namesake, what with me being a boy.

I don’t much like the name George, my mother said. But I didn’t know he would need a memorial so soon.

Georgina wasn’t an especially avid reader, but she was very fond of Dickens and felt that David Copperfield was her kindred spirit. I was a posthumous child, she liked to quote. As a young lady, she got into the macabre habit of naming her periods, insisting that each monthly bloodstain on her tights could have been a baby. Although lobotomies had started to go out of practice in those days, my mother was under the impression that Georgina needed one.

She’s a disturbed girl, my mother would weep. It’s because I was carrying her when he died. She must have felt it.

This was the same mother who told me I had been too young to remember my father’s body sprawled on the yard. By that logic, a fetus in utero could remember, but not a four-year-old witness. It struck me as unlikely. I hadn’t seen Georgina for some time, but she flew in from Chicago when she heard I was getting surgery.

You don’t need to do that, I told her over the phone. It sounds like a bigger deal than it is. I’ll be fine.

I know you will, she said. But I want to take care of Hermes. Somebody’s got to feed him while you’re in the hospital.

If this bird had done its job, your husband would probably be alive.

Hermes is the family canary. He was bred to be a mine bird, and his task was to alert workers of toxic fumes by dutifully dying. Hermes was retired from the line of duty because he wouldn’t suffocate when it was necessary—the sheer strength of his lungs became a terrible safety hazard. The mining supervisor gave him to us a few days after my father’s funeral. I figured you might want this.

My mother lifted her widow’s veil and squinted. Why?

If this bird had done its job, your husband would probably be alive. What do you want me to do? Snap its neck?

I figured you might, he repeated.

I remember taking the little yellow bird in my hand and flinching as his talons prickled my thumb. You decide what to do with it, my mother said to me.

She went to lie down. The doctor had been to see her that morning, and he advised her to rest as much as possible. Any further stress would risk a miscarriage. I sat on the kitchen floor with the bird and studied him carefully: a judge and defendant in a silent trial. His eyes were glassy pinpricks, dark and empty. As far as I could tell, they held no remorse. We lived just beside the railroad, and the walls shivered whenever a train rattled past. The noise kept startling the bird into song—he fluttered his clipped wings and warbled frantically. I ran my thumb over his head to calm him. After a few minutes, I felt him ease into the touch, his tiny avian heart slowing with each stroke. I went to my mother’s room and crouched beside her in the semi-darkness. I want to keep him, please.

She didn’t open her eyes. You’ll need to help take care of it. Can you do that? Yes please.

Then it’s settled.

Hermes didn’t have a name for several years—we just referred to him as “the bird” or “the canary.” He slept in a little wire crate on my dresser. Once Georgina was old enough to process her surroundings, she was delighted by him. He liked to perch on the bars of her crib and sing to her while she babbled. It was only in fifth grade, studying the Greek pantheon, that I encountered Hermes and decided that his title quite suited my winged companion. He was the messenger god, the only Olympian permitted to pass in and out of the Underworld. The shepherd of souls. The light-bearer.

A neurologist came to see me the morning after the surgery. She ran a series of tests that made me groggy and irritated. I found that a few of my reflexes were delayed, and I had forgotten the words fork, chair, and elbow. My memories from the week leading up to my operation were blurred beyond recognition. Otherwise, my mind seemed intact.

Hermes was excited to see me, Georgina said when she visited me in the hospital.

I’m sure he was.

She had brought a bouquet of daffodils and a coloring book page her youngest son filled in for me. The flowers were lovely, but the smell was overwhelming—after Georgina left, I asked my nurse to throw them away. I kept the drawing. The picture was of a cartoon giraffe that my nephew had scribbled in with green crayon. DEEAR UNKLE !!! GET WELL. FRUM LOVE NOAH, he wrote at the top. I was on quite a heavy dose of pain medication, and my lips were burning and half-numb.

You’re smiling weird, said Georgina.

It’s my special smile just for you.

The words came out garbled, and she didn’t bother hiding her laugh. My sister’s life runs perpendicular to my own—we converged at a single point in childhood and haven’t intersected since. Georgina works as an x-ray technician, and her husband Stanley is a recovered heroin addict turned motivational speaker and self-help book author. They met on a blind bowling alley date set up by a mutual friend.

I’ve missed how friendly Scranton is, Georgina said to the nurse who came to check my vitals.

I’m sure, said the nurse. Did you grow up here? She leaned against the wall to chat with her, snagged in the tractor beam of Georgina’s smile. My sister is not attention-seeking—rather, attention seeks her. She attracts it, absorbs it. There’s no element of performance and never a drop of insincerity. In any case, it is true that Scranton is a friendly city.

Later on Georgina digs a signed copy of Stanley’s new book out of her handbag and props it on my nightstand. It’s titled Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice. She knows that I think it’s nonsense, but she reads a chapter out loud anyway. It’s page after page of nonsensical platitudes and bloated metaphors—my personal favorite is an anecdote about a bird sharing his feathers with another bird and then getting turned back into an egg, which is crushed underfoot by a hiker. It concludes: “If we are to believe the age-old adage ‘birds of a feather fly together,’ then start molting! Grow new feathers and leave the old.”

Canaries can live up to fifteen years in captivity. It has been over fifty years since we got Hermes. Georgina thinks—or maybe convinces herself—that he is an extraordinarily long-lived bird. Of course, the reality is that I get a new canary every ten or so years and call him Hermes until I almost forget he’s not the original.

So, Hermes is more of a concept at this point, observed the last man I dated.

Something like that.

Very meta. He fancied himself an amateur film critic, and “meta” was one of his favorite compliments.

I study trauma for a living, and something I hear a lot is that small children don’t understand death. This is often true, but not always. When my mother opened the door that morning and I looked out the window to see why she was screaming, I knew I would be fatherless for as long as forever lasted. My mother wanted to move away after he died, but we couldn’t afford to. So we stayed in our three-family house in West Scranton where the roof shed its shingles and the rose bush flourished. Its flowers bloomed in slightly different hues every season—some years cream, some years eggshell, some years honeysuckle. Dark smoke plumed from the low industrial skyline. Smog and oxygen were comorbid: life and sickness as synonyms.

My mother’s group passed a unanimous ban on men shortly after his departure.

Our floor only had two bedrooms, so I shared a room with Georgina until she started middle school and my mother decided she needed her own space. I relocated to a foldable cot in the kitchen. We ate macaroni salad and spam hash. We went to expensive doctor appointments in Philadelphia to treat my asthma. We put money in the donation basket at church and left with food pantry cans tucked in our jackets. My mother worked as a court stenographer. She took the bus into the city center six mornings a week and returned home to rest her hands in a dish of ice. Once a month, she hosted a potluck dinner for her other mining-widow friends. Shirley, Doris, and Norma were like aunts to me and their children my cousins. They clucked around Georgina and me with cheek pinches and dollar coins pressed, winking, into our palms.

There was one man in this friend circle—a widower named Caleb who had come to Scranton after being banished from Amish Country. His offense was secretly acquiring a harmonica despite his community’s strict musical prohibition. Caleb’s wife had died falling into a sinkhole borne from a collapsed mine, making her an indirect but legitimate coal martyr. Thus, Caleb was granted membership to my mother’s support group. It was a controversial decision that was preceded by several tense council meetings in our living room.

We can’t deny him on the basis of sex, my mother had reasoned. He’s just as much a victim as we are. It’s setting a dangerous precedent, said Doris.

Shirley agreed with this, but Norma dissented. Unable to reach a consensus, Georgina was summoned to be the tiebreaker.

Why don’t you let him in on a probationary status? she suggested. And if you don’t like him, just kick him out.

The group thought this was a sound judgement. Caleb brought tuna salad to his first meeting and stood timidly against the wall while everyone ate. He had small ears and downturned eyebrows.

I don’t cook very often, he said by way of greeting. The salad might not be too good.

It’s not, said my mother. But that’s alright.

I don’t remember what Caleb’s voice sounded like, so I’ve replaced it in my head with the tinny whistle of his harmonica. He huffed himself purple that day playing “Oh Susanna” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” He snuck my mother a wink after every song. She answered with her placid smile, looking down at her lap before he could catch her gaze again.

Meet our magic bird, said Georgina. She scooped Hermes out of his cage and walked him over to Caleb. He extended a cautious hand and withdrew it, startled, when Hermes chirped in greeting.

I don’t get on with animals very well, he admitted.

Caleb stayed in town for about five years. One day, his home was found empty, and it was discovered that he had forsaken the harmonica and returned to Amish Country without telling anyone. My mother’s group passed a unanimous ban on men shortly after his departure.

“It’s human nature to seek connection, but it’s also human nature to murder and steal, so you should focus less on what human nature says and more on what is actually good.”
—Stanley Larkin, Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice

I remember being sixteen and watching Georgina cry in bed about that month’s lost child, who she was calling “Louis.”

He would have had curly brown hair, she said. And he would have been able to write with both hands. And who would the father be? snapped my mother.

Georgina sniffled. I don’t need there to be a father. I can have a baby all by myself.

But unless there’s sperm, the egg can’t be alive. I was very much enamored with my AP Biology class at the time.

My mother nodded. Exactly. Are you trying to be the next Virgin Mary? That’s blasphemy.

I just wanted to hold my baby, said Georgina. She blinked, and fresh tears webbed her blonde lashes. She never did get a lobotomy.

Georgina picked me up from the hospital after my discharge. Prior to my operation, I had pre- prepared a dozen meals and packed them in the freezer. I figured this would last me through the worst of my recovery. Georgina ignored my insistence that we heat up one of my dinners in the oven, opting to order Chinese takeout and put on a rerun of Days of Our Lives. It was uncanny to be home. I couldn’t quiet the suspicion that in my absence, all my furniture had shifted over a few millimeters. Everything smelled like dish soap. My head was cold, and Georgina helped me pull on a knit winter hat.

I wonder if your hair will come back grayer, she said.

You’re such a bully.

Who, me?

My fine motor skills weren’t back at full capacity yet, and forkfuls of orange chicken kept missing my mouth. I was stretched on the couch bundled in a quilt while Georgina sat on the floor.

Stanley doesn’t like Chinese food, she said. So we don’t have it too often.

How’s he doing?

Good. He was scared to be alone with the kids, but he’s doing fine.

The congenial chitchat felt alien to me; it was like bumping into a half-forgotten acquaintance in a grocery store.

What’s wrong? she asked.

I didn’t answer her, instead reaching out to probe gently at her cheeks, at the soft creases around her mouth. It had been so long since we’d so much as hugged each other, but Georgina let me touch her face with no resistance. Some of her concealer rubbed off on my thumb, revealing the little brown mole she’d always hated. The tension in my shoulders eased.

Nothing, I said. It’s okay now.

She shook her head. I think your brain got mushed up pretty bad. Here, let me help you.

I blinked. My hand had gone limp, and Georgina was steering my fork into my mouth. Hermes began to sing, softly.

“A solo trust exercise: fall backwards and practice catching yourself before you hit the ground. You’ll thank me later!”
—Stanley Larkin, Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice

My night terrors didn’t begin until I started at Penn State. Usually, my lungs would slowly fill with coal. I’d wake up expecting charcoal to leak out from under my eyelids. I started out as a double major in philosophy and geology, thinking I would either be an academic specializing in mathematical logic, a public attorney, or a scientist who tracked tectonic plate movements. I went to football games and made friends at bonfire parties. My roommate knew Italian, and I often asked him to speak it to me while we made love on the floor. He had a beautiful voice—deep and melodic—and in him I sent my mind flying away. It usually went to the ruins of ancient Greece; I stepped carefully around the crumbled perimeter of the Parthenon and squinted at a sun so bright it had no shape.

I was engaged to someone for most of my thirties.

I wandered into a neuroscience lecture one day while looking for my Plato in Society class, and I ended up being so interested in the topic that I switched around my entire schedule to accommodate it. The energetic professor bounced around the room, speaking exuberantly about brain plasticity: our boundless capacity for growth and learning and resilience. How the mind adapts to accommodate our experiences, constantly stretching, remapping our patterns and programs. At the end of the semester, I went to the registrar’s office and changed my major to psychology. It remains the simplest choice I have ever made.

I was engaged to someone for most of my thirties. We had plans to drive out of state and get married at a courthouse, and we broke it off because he wanted to adopt a baby and I didn’t. In the aftermath, I went to see my mother. She had been briefed on the situation by Georgina, and she was waiting on the front stoop when I arrived.

You’re a good boy, she said.

She put her arms around me, and I rested my chin on top of her curly head.

We went inside. She watched me eat a slice of coffee cake while she stood at the sink rewashing dishes.

I thought this might happen, she said.


I should have gotten married again.

I gawked. To who? Caleb? He liked me, you know.

But you didn’t like him. Or did you? I didn’t.

So what good would that have done?

She sighed through her nose. You didn’t grow up with a proper family. That’s why you can’t keep a relationship now.

I put down my fork. I’m my own person. So is Georgina.

She said nothing. I finished the coffee cake, but it didn’t taste like anything.

“Telling the truth is hard! Sometimes, it’s okay to lie a little bit to make things easier.”
—Stanley Larkin, Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice

My mother had refused to let me hold Georgina as a newborn until I promised to walk her down the aisle at her wedding.

If she can’t have a father, a brother is the next best thing, she said.

I did my best— plastered bandages on her roller skate scabs, spread jam onto Wonder Bread toast for her afterschool snack, plaited her hair, brushed out the tangles. There were only four years between us, but being taken care of by Georgina after my surgery made me feel infantile. I wondered if she made any deathbed promises about me to our mother. Her health had been in decline for some time, and in the end, it came down to an ugly bout of the flu.

Look after your brother, I pictured her saying. If he can’t have a mother, a sister is the next best thing.

I have one memory of my father from when he was alive. I was walking with him to the post office to mail something out, and one of his friends waved to us from across the street.

Handsome little fella you got there, he called. What’s his name again?

Francis, said my father. But we call him Frankie.

“Everything happens for a reason. Especially the bad stuff.”
—Stanley Larkin, Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice

I am often asked about retirement. I’ve reached the age where coworkers slyly tell me about their friends who have moved to Florida, dropping hints about sensibly priced condos and the health benefits of warm weather. But I don’t want to look too far ahead—my odds of long-term survival are not yet calculated, and I want to have patients for as long as I can talk.

My current roster includes a man with agoraphobia, a woman struggling with imposter syndrome, a little boy with a restrictive intake eating disorder, and a woman preparing for a cross-country move while working through the death of her best friend. I don’t have a particular specialization in my practice, but I consider myself an expert in coping. Coping with crisis, coping with grief, coping with coping.

In our first session, I gave her an entirely fictionalized account of my life and background.

My first real client was a gangly man called Lachlan who was going through a horrifically messy and adulterous divorce. Most sessions, I couldn’t get him to say much beyond, I can’t believe this is my life. I would nod understandingly and prod him with gentle questions about his routine and his sleeping habits and his goals for the future. Eventually, I asked what he wanted to get out of our time together.

I want to feel in control of my life, he said. I smiled. Well, that can be hard to do.

But not impossible. No, not impossible.

I was still in therapy myself at the time. It was a mandatory part of the licensing process: to analyze another, one must be analyzed oneself. I understood the logic, of course—just not when it applied to me. Still, I tried to comply. I offered my psyche up to the school-delegated doctor, a woman with a rounded Southern accent and long pink fingernails. I think her name was Helen. She had a distinctly Freudian approach to psychotherapy, and she had me lie on a leather couch facing away from her, angled instead toward a large potted plant. I believe it was a fiddle leaf fig, but it may have been a bird of paradise. The lights were dim.

In our first session, I gave her an entirely fictionalized account of my life and background. I was from Montana and had been raised on a ranch. I had an irrational fear of horses and a sister who was ten years my senior. My parents liked taking us on road trips through the mountains, and I had aspired to be a professional skier before my dreams were dashed by a leg injury. I’m not sure which subconscious well these details were dredged from; I don’t think I even meant to lie. Of course, there was no way to backpedal, so I continued the ruse until I was told that I didn’t have to see Helen anymore. The incessant scratch of her ballpoint pen followed me out of the office, the waiting room, down the street until I finally lost it in the rumble of traffic.

“Every ending is a new beginning, but every ending is still also an ending.”
—Stanley Larkin, Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice

During my recovery, I thought about the surgeon often—his easy bedside manner, his palpable calm, his gray eyes flecked with blue. Once I was released from bedrest, I asked him to dinner. He agreed. I was no longer his patient—I was scheduled to see a neurologist for the duration of my recovery—and he said it would be nice to check in and talk. I wasn’t cleared to drive yet, so Georgina dropped me off at the restaurant.

Have fun, she winked.

We’re colleagues, I said. This is purely professional. My bad. Have boring doctor-talk, then.

He was a bit of a messy eater, which surprised me. I had expected him to approach everything with the precision he brought to the operating table. Maybe he was only able to summon that intense concentration because it was dormant off the clock.

It’s great see you doing so well, he said. I knew you would pull through.

I was surprised when he asked me what books I had read recently. I thought he already knew.

I’m reading my brother-in-law’s new self-help book, I told him.

What’s his name?

Stanley Larkin.

His whiskery eyebrows shot upward. No kidding! I’m a big fan.

Are you really?

I’ve got all his books at home. His second one is my favorite. Triumph Over Traction, I think it is.

What’s he like?

He’s very nice, I said. He’s a good husband to my sister. A good father to my nephews. But you don’t like his writing, he observed.

Not particularly, no. Why not?

It’s just not my taste, I admitted. I have some trouble following it.

He inclined his head slightly. Fair enough. Well, why do you like him?

He’s been through so much. And he knows himself so well. It kind of feels like he knows me, too. It’s a good feeling, isn’t it? I said. To be known.

The best.

We split the bill and went out to the parking lot.

I can drive you home, he said.

In the car, he kissed me with soft assertion, teeth scraping into my bottom lip like a butter knife. I opened again.

“Most of the time, we already have the answers we need, but we don’t know what they are, which isn’t very helpful.”
—Stanley Larkin, Overcoming Obscurity: How to Nurture Your Authentic Voice

So far, my scans have all come back clean. I’ve resumed work and am adjusting to my old routine. It was nice to see my patients so relieved at my return. Maybe that’s egotistical, enjoying the feeling of being needed, but it’s a pleasure I’ll indulge.

It’s late now, and my chamomile tea has gone cold. I put it in the microwave for thirty seconds, and it blossoms with renewed steam. Georgina has been gone for weeks. We call each other frequently, but usually the other doesn’t pick up, so we leave each other lengthy voicemails that clog up our answering machines. I miss her. The surgeon has asked me to accompany him on a trip to Maine this summer. We’ll drive along the coast until we reach our seaside hotel. I can picture it: the craggy shore, the salt, the waves dark and boundless at night. I want to sit on the rocks with him. I want to close my eyes.

Hermes is asleep in his cage, small head burrowed underwing. I think I can hear him breathing, but that might just be the radiator. I refill his dish of birdseed and brush my pinky finger over his soft body. It’s dark out. Spring is coming in a few weeks and the air feels nice. I take my spoonful of pills and leave a window open when I go to bed.