Arturo Alejandro Diaz, my father, died this week at age ninety. After a long and robust life, he suffered physical decline in the last decade and, in the final years, sudden dementia. He fell on Sunday night, breaking his right femur, an injury with no prospect for repair in one so frail. He received palliative care, was mainly free from pain and anxiety, and faded rapidly. Frances Stasi Diaz, his wife of sixty-five years, stayed by him until the end. He died on January 18, 2023, in Naples, Florida.
He was born September 23, 1932, in Mexico City; his distant ancestors had emigrated to Mexico from Spain in the early 1600s. He grew up in a broken home, on the margins of poverty, at times going hungry. His mother and maternal grandmother raised him. He spoke of his grandmother as a strong and wise woman, a central influence. He cherished her stories of Mexican life in the 1800s. His father was a doctor, who remarried and gave only distant attention.
He attended college and medical school at the University of Mexico City. During training, he worked in rural Mexico, caring for the poor; he sometimes rode horses and hunted for his meals. He moved to New York City in 1956, to join my mother. They had met four years earlier, when she visited Mexico as an exchange student. They married in 1957, in New York City.
Though he wished to practice surgery, he feared that his foreign birth and Spanish accent would limit his career. Instead, he undertook residency as an anesthesiologist. He worked in this capacity for thirty-three years, at Flushing Hospital in Queens, New York, Windham Memorial Hospital in Windham, Connecticut, Nassau Hospital in Mineola, New York, then Day-Kimball Hospital in Putnam, Connecticut. At the latter two institutions, he served as chief of anesthesia. He worked at Day-Kimball from 1970 until retirement in 1989.
During my own medical training, when working in the operating room, I called him one night. “The anesthesiologists are the smartest people in the room,” I said. “They’re looking at the heart, they’re following the lungs, they’re worrying about the kidneys.” It is a complex task of balancing physiology, pharmacology, and pathology, in dynamic mixture while the patient endures the trauma of surgery. One might add the psychiatric job of managing the surgeon. It was an epiphany, to see this profound work that my father had mastered, caring for many thousands, over decades. “They are pretty smart,” he replied, with pride in his voice.
He was raised in the Catholic Church but his true faith was the religion of work. He was a doctor of the old school, for whom medical work was duty and virtue. I recall countless times when he answered a call, spoke a few sentences into the phone, then left for the hospital. This occurred at night, on the weekend, during dinner, on a sunny afternoon, amid a midnight blizzard, even at the instant he arrived home, year upon year. He was often exhausted, yet he did not really complain. This was the job. Someone needed care, so he drove ten miles, met another patient, another worried family, conferred with the surgeon, and worked. This unusual capacity for work transformed his station in life. From childhood poverty, he grew to provide security, opportunity, and abundance for his wife and four children. In his early career, he sent money to his mother in Mexico; at his death, he had provided a foundation for the next two generations. What a transformation, in one lifetime, what a remarkable feat.
Throughout his life, depression stalked him. He was often impatient, angry, pessimistic, and judgmental. This was the sad residue of a lonely, broken boyhood. The noteworthy point is the extent to which he transcended these demons.
He was extremely smart. When I studied history in college, I sometimes reviewed my essays with him, and he knew a fair amount of what I struggled to master. “Yes, Charles the Fifth, we called him Carlos Quinto,” he said, recalling details of a sixteenth century monarch that he had learned decades before. He excelled at chess, enjoying the game’s iron-clad logic. Once at my grade school chess club, when all the tables were in use, I saw him play a match with an instructor, using notations on a chalkboard, a method that requires the ability to visualize the entire board in one’s head. He was skilled at games such as bridge, cribbage, and backgammon. He tried reading Shakespeare but, as a native Spanish speaker, felt he never grasped the language. Yet once he saw me reading The Portrait of Dorian Gray and exclaimed, “Oscar Wilde wrote some wonderful things!” He read widely, mainly history, as well as novels of adventure and espionage. He had an inventive mind. He created a surgical tool at the hospital that became known as “Dr. Diaz’s retractor,” and he once cut a new gear to repair a broken clock.
He and my mother restored an eighteenth century home in rural Woodstock, Connecticut. They collected antiques, bringing the old house to a new peak of elegance. He had special interest in antique clocks, lamps, decoys, and coins. His collection of grandfather clocks would bring credit to any museum. His habit of work at the hospital extended to diligence at home: he mowed the large lawn, raked leaves, cleaned the pool, cut and stacked wood for winter, and shoveled snow. We children helped, but mainly it was Dad. He enjoyed animals, and for a time kept chickens, sheep, rabbits, and a goat. He built small barns for them to shelter and a large fenced pasture to roam. We had several dogs, whom he loved greatly.
Retirement allowed him to put aside the stress of medicine, and he enjoyed life more. He and my mother moved to Naples, Florida, and became more socially active. They traveled to Africa, Europe, Central and South America, and Alaska. Often these were educational trips or biking tours; several of them included his eight grandchildren. He became a good photographer, taking interesting pictures of animals. He learned to sail, and owned a twenty-eight foot sloop which he and my mother piloted off southern New England. In Florida, he had a small power boat and explored the Gulf Coast waters. He learned tennis in his sixties, and played fanatically into his mid-70s, until his strength began to fail. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and also at a medical clinic for migrant farmworkers, many hailing from his native Mexico.
In the late 1990s, my parents acquired a pool table, a donation from friends. At the time, I was sorting through career notions, variously working as a history teacher and writer, and considering law or medicine. It was a luxury of youthful restlessness that my father never had. I lived for a year at my parents’ home. Dad and I began playing pool. We became surprisingly good, sinking bank shots and caroms. We had nightly contests after dinner, developing the lazy camaraderie that other men enjoy over football and beer. When finally I was set to begin medical school, in 2001, I asked at the pool table whether he had advice. He replied with thoughts about studying hard, which seemed generic, inadequate for the venture ahead. Now, as I mourn him, I see that there could be no advice beyond the entire example of his work, care, and persistence. He applied this core truth to every project and predicament, propelling himself through a long and impressive journey. What a very good life, Dad.