Dr. Oakley’s baggy eyes looked directly at me as he searched my chest with the cold, round instrument. Rubber hoses flowed from it, into his hairy ears. And I looked back in fear, wondering if he would give me a needle. At seven years of age, I was terrified of needles, and when my father escorted him to my bedroom, the surrounding comfort of comic books and electric train could not ease the fear I felt within.
The ritual was the same each visit: If he dropped the cold thing into his black leather bag, I would not be pierced; but if he placed it on my bed, then…oh then. I watched him withdraw the probe from my ribbed cage and saw the jowls above me respond to the good news his meaty lips spoke to my anxious mother: the pneumonia had receded; I was getting better. Thank God…I was saved.
As was his habit, my father invited him to stay a moment to share a glass of wine. And I could hear them from the bedroom, chatting in broken English telling him how much they appreciated him. And before he left for his next home visit, my parents would insist, despite his best efforts to decline, that he receive an offer of their best wine. Every time he came, he always left with a gallon of appreciation.
Nowadays, home visits – let alone a gift of wine – would never happen. Dr. Oakley’s home visits were more than professional service. They were the essence of community life in those days, and the warmth of one heart giving to another. People helped each other, they were fluent in the art of conversation, and built community on the principle of give and take.
I remember the kitchen-parties in our home: Italian immigrants in faded suits: card-playing, wine-drinking, hearty eaters who would spontaneously burst out in songs from the old country; beefy men who cried at Christmas because they were so far from home; smotherly hens who would cluck at their children to behave; and the graciousness extended to strangers. Everyone was equal in those days, because everyone was poor.
But some time in my teens, everything changed. We moved to a different, larger city. And when my father called our new physician, a young fellow from the South, the doctor refused to come. In hindsight, I can understand the decision of that new breed; but it’s a sad understanding informed by the realities of a cooler way of healing.
In high school I learned that Dr. Oakley had died of a heart attack. And despite my memories of his black bag and needles, I missed him and the laughter he shared with my mother and father. The age of Oakley in the healng profession is over, as is its warmth. And I wonder whether we have lost more than we have gained in our trade with the cool steel of science and technology. The age of kitchen-parties, like those I knew, are over too. We discareded them, like faded suits, for Armani and stainless steel appliances.