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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesIs the doctor in? - A John Dunn story

Is the doctor in? – A John Dunn story

by John Dunn

written February 10, 1999

As an introductory note, the doctor’s house referred to in the first sentence is the imposing stone house at the corner of Queen and Clyde Streets. Dr. Frank Murphy had his practice based in this house until recently. It is called “the doctor’s house” as it has only been owned by four people, all of them doctors. My grandfather, Dr. J F Dunn, was the third owner.

Michael Dunn – Almonte
The kitchen in the doctor’s house on that May morning would have made a perfect score of peace and contentment for an artist. Mid-morning, Saturday, late May, sunny and warm. The door to the verandah, left open for the first time that year, had attracted yellow-jacket hornets that were thrumming against the screen, vainly assaulting entry to the kitchen.

I had been cutting grass with the lawn mower. Hot work, and had gone inside for a break. Seated in the well of the big kitchen window, silent and intent as the cat eyeing the mouse hole, I watched Mother open the oven door of the wood stove to check on Parker House rolls browning there.

“Two more minutes,” she announced, closing the door.

The telephone rang.

“Oh, my goodness,” she said of the ill-timed interruption, “I can’t go to answer that call right at this moment. Would you mind answering for me? Just find out who is calling. Your father’s at the hospital, and he should be back at noon hour.”

I sprang up, hurried to the inside office and snatched the telephone receiver out of its cradle and said. “Hello.”

“Hello,” a lady’s voice echoed, as if its owner wondered whether it would be worthwhile to proceed, and then asked “Is the doctor in?”

“Not at the moment,” I responded, “He’s at the hospital,”

“Oh!” came in response from the other end, and a drawn-out pause followed for its owner to consider what now.

“Would you care to leave a message for him?” I enquired, leaning back to wait for the lady’s decision-making power to jell.

In the pause that followed my eyes flitted across the examining couch to the bookcase set into the opposite wall. Quiet, that bookcase sat, and serene, filled with thick books, not least of which had one thousand pages, liberally illustrated with the stringy insides of us human beings. Coloured drawings.

Twin narrow doors, six feet in height, with small glass panes, like displaced ladders from a library, protected the privacy of the contents when the doors were shut, revealing only medical titles.

Surmounting the bookcase a gold-framed portrait in oils of the wise man my father called “the silver-tongued orator”, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, beamed benignly and equally down on everyone, sick and well.

With the brashness of a fourteen year-old who has passed first form in high school, I waited.

“Oh, ah,” the lady gurgled, as if priming the pump, and speech came. “No, I guess not, but, well, mebbe yes,” she declared, voice rising demonstratively, “Perhaps you might just tell him that Lizzie called.”

Should I write that down? Poof! Dismiss the silly notion. Trust memory. Was Lizzie all? I’d better make sure.

“Lizzie,” I repeated, and to clear up any lurking mystery arising out of many Lizzies, I enquired: “Will he know just which Lizzie that is?”

No doubt existed at the other end of the line. “Oh my goodness me,” replied the caller, laughing. “I’m sure the doctor knows at least half a dozen Lizzies. To be sure.” More laughter, and a glissando down the scale.

Lizzie continued: “But to be sure there’s no misunderstanding, I guess you could just say it’s Lizzie from Panmuir.”

“Lizzie from Panmuir,” I dutifully echoed, though still wondering if some special kind of magic were needed beyond that cryptic nomenclature. “And he’ll know just from that?” I asked.

Another burst of laughter. “Oh, indeed he will. No doubt about that.” Laughter at such a great gaffe I had unconsciously made rolled through the instrument and thundered at my ear like discharged artillery, and again subsided. Lizzie returned to facts. “You might just tell him I haven’t been feeling my right self since New Year’s.”

“And it’s now May. That’s five months,” I declared, staring at Sir Wilfrid. His face had changed: was that a subtle smirk I beheld at my diagnosis of calendar arithmetic?

Abandoning the prime minister and his subtle smirking I dropped my gaze down to the bookcase where my eyes idled momentarily on the back of Osler’s “Modern Medicine”, drifted over to Gray’s “Anatomy”, and the “Pharmacopoeia of Modern Medicine”, and came to rest on that most mysterious of all thousand-page texts, “Diseases of Women”.

“That’s right,” continued Lizzie. “Even in February I began thinkin’ it’s time for the spring tonic, the sulphur and molasses, to put me back on my feet, an’ then I thought, well, February is awful early for the S & M.”

That menacing medicine made me squirm, troubled with unease. Was I getting in far beyond safe depth for a first former? Was Lizzie about to unfurl the secrets of “Diseases of Women?” Horrors, shall I cut and run, or, unsettled, and, like Macbeth’s horse, knowing that ‘going back were now as difficult as going o’er’, plunge ahead? Would my father ever tune out a patient’s account of illness? Never! For better or worse, I was locked to the phone. “Did the sulphur and molasses do any good?” I enquired, squeezing out a dollop of compassion.

“Not worth a hoot,” came the verdict. “Sure a cup of tea and a kind word with my grandmother would have done a thousand times more good.” Now fully launched into the progress of the disease of springtime, and her household treatment, Lizzie ventured straight into March itself. “In March I pulled out the kitchen stool and reached up to the top shelf where I’d left a bottle of last summer’s dandelion wine. I took that too.”

“Did it help?” I asked solicitously, emphasizing the ‘it’, as if ‘it’ were the very last of all possible remedies, the final solution. But tests and experiments rolled on.

“Can’t say it did help much. Of course I did feel better, for half an hour, I’d s’pose. I guess you could say it didn’t do any harm, but then it didn’t do much good either.”

“I s’pose not,” Sympathy smothered my earlier compassion.

“But then, in April,” Lizzie hastened on, “When I was still not feeling right at all, I remembered that Himself always keeps a bottle of Fr. John’s ‘Beef, Iron and Wine’ tonic on the top shelf of the cupboard behind the stove in the summer kitchen. Says it’s good as a drench for the horse if spring comes on wet and backward. I got that down, and after blowing the dust and hayseeds off it, found it was still half full. I took it too.”

“Surely that must have helped?” said I, using the mallet on ‘must’ to drive my enquiry right to the heart of the matter.

“Not a bit of it. A disaster. Might just as well have gone back to sulphur and molasses. And with the month of May here now, I can’t get about doin’ my work proper. Wonderin’ all the time if there’s somethin’ gone wrong inside me. So I was just wonderin’ if you’d ask the doctor…”

“Yes?” I said, encouragingly.

“Well,” Lizzie went on, “Now that summer’s upon us an’ sleighing’s ended, he’s likely got the horse out on pasture, an’ I thought like as not he’s got the car on the roads now, so I wanted to ask, if it wouldn’t be too much bother, if you’d just ask the doctor if he’d drive out an’ run over me.”

Like a Roman candle firecracker, the telephone leapt up and away from my hands towards the examining couch. With a bound like a gazelle’s, I was after it, and managed to snatch it out of the atmosphere of “Diseases of Women”, right under Laurier’s silver-tongued snicker.

“I’ll be sure to tell him, I will, indeed. I will, just as soon as he comes in,” I shouted jerking the mouthpiece upright, and stiffening it, solidly. Badly shaken, I dropped the telephone on its table and lumbered back to the kitchen. It had been a harrowing experience, as the poets say. “Truly devastating” retired shantymen on the front step at the blacksmith shop would say.

“Who was on the phone?” asked Mother.

“Lizzie.” I said, adding meaningfully, “From Panmuir.”

“Oh yes, that one,” said Mother. “It’s that time of year. Here, have a couple of Parker House rolls. They’ll make you feel better.”

Still in shock from a too close encounter with “Diseases of Women” I took two hot, buttered rolls and a glass of milk out to the verandah and slumped in a heap on the top step.

Ten minutes later Mother’s voice flew through the screen at me, “Those rolls were small. Do you think you could manage two more?”

The slumped heap quivered, and, like Mercury, winged messenger of Greek gods, my heels sprouted wings and I took to flight.

Much later, clinical notes about that day in May revealed that after my devastating experience on the telephone, my restored appearance that followed the second Parker House roll treatment was so dramatic, some said it was like the return of Lazarus from the tomb, simply dumbfounding to many. “Quite extraordinary”, the notes said. “A near miss,” quoth I.


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