STORIES

Eddie Saag

From his youth, Eddie Saag was a vibrant man, fit and athletic. He entered the U.S. Army at age 18 and sailed through basic training.  When it came time for his platoon to be sent overseas, he somehow wrangled a promotion to corporal so he could be in charge of training new recruits.  That meant he had to be in superior shape and out-perform them at the obstacle courses, fitness and endurance tests. But that was fine with Dad, who already was living by the philosophy he later would preach to his kids: Never give up. No matter what the circumstance, don’t be a quitter.

The first time I remember my father talking about aging, I was eight years old. He was complaining to another relative that his Uncle Sam, his mother Lela’s brother, was “not growing old gracefully.” Because Sam couldn’t do everything he once could do, he was becoming angry and bitter, Dad said. “Such a shanda (shame).” As with many grown-up conversations on which I eavesdropped, I didn’t comprehend everything. But I could tell Dad felt Sam was wasting time lamenting the inevitable. I know realize I was listening in on Dad’s philosophy of life: embrace what we have, make the most of it until there is nothing left to embrace.

To celebrate my graduation from medical school in 1981, (my mom) insisted on throwing a party that was grand even by her standards. She moved the furniture to make room for a crowd, put out enormous buffets of food, and invited everyone she felt had contributed in any way to my MD degree. That meant key professors and mentors from the University of Louisville such as Jeff Callen (head of Dermatology), family, friends, and fellow students including three–Eddie Tillett, Barry Klein, and David Robie—who were my classmates both in medical school and at Mrs. Chance’s Nursery School. It was a great celebration, a great afternoon.

When the party was over and everyone had left, my father took me back to the bedroom and closed the door.  He told me how proud he was of me, and how this accomplishment was a shining example of sticking with what you start.  Then he said, “Michael, one day I’m going to need a favor from you.  One day I’m going to become a ‘GOMER.’”

That term was one Dad had picked up from me when I was reading The House of God, a satirical novel about medical internship written by “Samuel Shem, MD” (the pen name for psychiatrist-writer Stephen Bergman). In the fictional hospital in the book, GOMER was the staff’s acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room, a label they applied to aged or incurably sick individuals who had lost the essence of meaningful life yet were still alive.

My dad’s father David Saag died at age 80, and after my dad reached that milestone himself, he used to joke, “I made a deal with God that if I could live to 80, I’d be a happy man. At 79, I renegotiated!” However, my dad also had watched as his aging mother, Lela, lost her hearing, most of her sight, and many of her friends. By the time Lela died at age 98, she was lonely and miserable. When Dad used the term GOMER, I knew what it meant to him: a person who had reached that place where life doesn’t seem worth living anymore, where the suffering is too great and extending life only prolongs that pain.

“I don’t know when that time is going to come,” Dad said to me, “but I’ll know when I see it. And then I’m going to turn to you and I’m going to need your help.”

I nodded, I hugged him, and I said, “Pops, I don’t think that will be any time soon.”  We left the room and never again spoke about it. The covenant had been made.

 

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