The main arc of my father’s life was simple. He admired his parents and followed in their footsteps. He became a doctor so he could care for people. He was devoted to my mother and our family. He died at home in his sleep.
Carl Brownsberger’s grandfather was an early leader in the Seventh Day Adventist faith, which places a focus on health. Carl’s parents and their siblings all became medical doctors.
He was born in India where his parents were medical missionaries. Neither he nor his father could fend off malaria and after a few years, the young family returned to Glendale, California to join a vibrant community of Adventists.
He chafed against the lifestyle restrictions of strict Adventism, especially the Saturday sabbath which separated him from his classmates and made it hard to date girls or participate in sports.
Carl’s father spent the war years as a surgeon in San Francisco, patching up soldiers injured on the Pacific front. By the time his father returned to Glendale, Carl was a late teenager expecting to live as he wanted to live. Father and son argued about religion.
When he went to college, Carl discovered positivist philosophy and found justification for abandonment of his Adventist upbringing. His allegiance to his parents remained so deep that until late in life he often felt the need to re-explain his choice.
He followed his parents to medical school. He never gave a thought to any other path.
He was an old-school physician: He saw patients as people, not as charts. When my sister and I were little, he was our family doctor and he carefully attended to our smallest ailments. I can still feel his gentle touch and hear his kindly diagnostic patter.
As a psychiatrist, he was always available to his patients. He gave them our home number and even took their calls during dinner. We often tried to eat quietly at the kitchen table while he held the wall phone tight to his ear. Listening to him listen to his patients, I learned from his caring and his careful attention to how his patients were feeling.
As he rebelled against the faith of his parents, he was also willing to challenge medical dogma. In a field of medicine in which there were multiple rigid schools of thought, he was a pragmatist: He always wanted to do whatever worked and he partnered with each patient to figure out what would help.
Through the years, many strangers have been willing to tell me how much they appreciated the kindness and care that my father gave them.
He had little patience for bureaucracy. As health care insurers tightened pre-authorization rules, he found himself spending too much time on the phone explaining to unsympathetic bureaucrats his care plans for patients. He retired at 65 because he felt medicine was changing in ways he didn’t like.
But he never stopped caring for people. In his retirement, he volunteered for a hospice and became their medical director. Well into his 80s, he would leave the house with medical bag to care for aging friends.
He had a sweet retirement life with my mother. In a tongue-in-cheek Christmas letter, he bragged to friends that “Susan and I have found a new way to make love – we read to each other.”
When my mother became ill with pancreatic cancer, he rallied for one final care mission. Her death in February shattered him, but he pulled himself together to do all that needed to be done.
Recently, he seemed to be rediscovering joy in the little things of life. When he died in his sleep earlier this week, my sense was not so much that he died of a broken heart, but that he had no one else left to take care of.
Among his many wise sayings was this: “There is a big difference between thinking things and doing things.” While his inquiring mind ranged wide and he doubted all dogma, in his deeds he was a very religious man.