You can know that your dad’s a doctor, you can hear him talk about patients, you can grow indignant when you cut your foot and, instead of giving you wads of sympathy like other dads, yours glances up from his paper and says “don’t bleed on the rug…”

But until you’re behind the scenes, watching “Dad” become “Dr. Morgan,” you can’t really understand the value he brings to the world. And once you’ve had your first Mr. McCorkle, you’ll try for the rest of your life to understand how your dad continued caring for terminally ill patients with such grace, even when he knew he couldn’t “fix” them.

Until he retired, my father was a radiation oncologist, someone who treats cancers and other nasties by zapping them with a variety of radioactive substances. Just after college, I worked in Dad’s clinic, which was quite possibly the most incredible experience of my life. I got to see my father as the rest of the world saw him, a skilled and compassionate physician who eased the pain of the dying, comforted the living and sometimes–but not often enough–got to cure somebody.

My job was to do the medical transcription, program the little HP computer and generally make myself useful. I took flowers to hospitalized patients, greeted them when they came in for daily treatments, celebrated on their last day of treatment and solemnly welcomed them back when the cancer popped up somewhere else.

I don’t know if Dad meant to turn this into a life lesson when he hired me for the job, but that’s exactly what it became.

Working with terminal cancer patients can be an intense experience. They often feel they can’t discuss the actual mechanics of dying with their loved ones but, since you’re “in the business,” it’s OK to talk about it with you. And they need the outlet…so you listen.

In my case I’m afraid listening had less to do with compassion and more with not knowing how to change the subject. But I listened–and learned–a lot.

(Thank you, Dad)

I learned that dying isn’t always the quiet sleepy shuffle off to paradise that you see in movies. I learned what happens when a patient’s calcium levels dip too low (it’s pretty dire), how edema swells the arms until the skin breaks, and that Visine won’t help when you’ve coughed so hard the blood vessels break and your eyes turn scarlet.

I learned the discomfort of a first breast prosthesis and the itchiness of the wrong kind of wig. That at some point most of the dying stop worrying about dying and start worrying about those they’re leaving. And that for many, the loss of dignity is worse than dying.

I took all of it mostly in stride…until Mr. McCorkle.

Please note: McCorkle wasn’t his real name. On the off-chance that someone who actually knew him is reading this, I’ve made some judicious changes.

Mr. McCorkle was my graphic arts professor in college, an old-fashioned press jockey and typesetter who could spot a millimeter of misaligned type from across the room.

He looked like Santa Claus and many of us made the mistake of thinking he was a jolly fat man we could easily get around; he wasn’t.

I never once heard him lose his temper, cuss or raise his voice but he was absolute master of all he surveyed and he didn’t suffer fools easily. He could cut you down to size in five words or less…and often did.

I desperately wanted to impress McCorkle, and I worked overtime trying. On my last day in his class he told me he’d noticed the extra hours I’d put in. “If you keep that up,” he said gravely, “You may someday acquire a small degree of proficiency.” And then he smiled the only smile I ever saw that didn’t involve a grade of D or below, and shook my hand. I very nearly wept.

We didn’t see each other again until years later, when I drove him to the hospital.

By then, I was working for Dad, at the cancer clinic. It was about a block from the local hospital. Any of our patients who were hospitalized would just travel over to the clinic by ambulance for their daily radiation treatments. Problem was, though, that the ambulance companies charged a small fortune for that simple one-block, round-trip drive.

And that was a big problem for Dad, because he was fiercely determined to keep his patients and their families out of the poorhouse. Sad commentary on the US health insurance system, but losing a loved one to terminal cancer frequently bankrupts the survivors, even when they’re well-insured.

So Dad spent a great deal of time figuring out how to minimize costs for his patients. He compiled a monthly list of the cheapest pharmacies for his most commonly prescribed drugs, figured out how to combine treatment days to bill the patients for one treatment instead of treatment-plus-consultation.

He solved the ambulance problem by buying an old station wagon, outfitting it as a patient transport vehicle, and qualifying his employees to drive patients back and forth for free.

It saved his hospitalized patients a boatload of money, although I doubt they ever realized it. I know some of the families sniffed at that old green Ford. A couple of times I bit my tongue at their remarks about the rich doctor’s clinic that nevertheless was too cheap to have a real ambulance.

I only drove that station wagon once, when everyone else was swamped. Ruth, the nurse, told me a new patient was loaded up, ready to go but she had two patients to care for in the clinic. Would I help?

I was bored typing up patient histories, so I grabbed the keys and slid behind the wheel. “Get the orderlies to help you when you get there,” she instructed, “He’s got brain metastases, poor man, and he’s really not all there. He wouldn’t lie down in the back so we finally put him in the passenger’s side.”

She went back inside and I glanced at my passenger just as he turned. His carefully tucked-up blankets slid to the floor. The hospital gown had rolled up around his waist, with nothing on underneath. I tried to slip the blankets up, but his hand grabbed my wrist and I saw his face for the first time.

It was Professor McCorkle. I gasped, and his eyes slowly focused. He looked puzzled for a moment, then recognition sharpened his eyes and I saw him place me, and blush red.

He looked down, and saw himself, naked. His fingers plucked weakly at the blankets but he lacked the strength to cover himself. I hastily pulled things back into place, but it was too late.

“Ohhh, McCorkle,” he moaned, burying his face in his hands, and began to cry. I tried to pat his shoulder but he shrugged off my hand.

I started to say, “It’s OK,” but it wasn’t OK. His torment was real; I’d completed the humiliation of a proud master and there was nothing, nothing I could do to fix it.

“I’m sorry,” I said finally. I put the car in gear and drove back to the hospital with McCorkle sobbing silently in the passenger seat. He quieted as we arrived, and the orderlies hustled him into a wheelchair and up to his room.

Later that day I bought a few flowers from the corner florist and took them to Mr. McCorkle. I set them down on his nightstand; he didn’t look up and his eyes never focused.

“He doesn’t understand anything,” said the nurse, “He’s pretty much gone.”

“He understands more than you think,” I replied.

Professor McCorkle continued to stare at the wall. He died a couple days later, without saying another word.

Up until that day I’d figured I could do anything if I just put my mind to it. Now I understood that, no matter how hard I tried, some things were beyond me.

I wondered how my father could stand it.