At a measly 3 pages long, one would think that “The Doctor” by Ann Hood is too short for deep meaning. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. The story touches on topics that resonate with anyone who’s lost a family member, especially a parent. It focuses on love and loss, but perhaps more specifically, the impossibility of love once you’ve blamed the person in question.
Because when you lose someone to something unseen, you need to find someone tangible to blame.
“The Doctor” starts off very simply, with a woman telling the reader that her father has died. The doctor who treated him wants to take her out on a coffee date. Our female narrator keeps insisting that he has killed her father, although we quickly find out that it was cancer. Clearly, the situation is rather sticky. How do you date the doctor who couldn’t save your father?
She goes on to explain the type of man her father was. How he read Reader’s Digest and the Sunday paper, and welded for a living. But then she goes on to describe the doctor: Italian movie star look-alike, with dark curly hair and a droopy handlebar mustache. A divorced man, he only saw his kids every other weekend and holidays.
The narrator then admits that she has indeed fallen in love with the doctor, but she holds that grudge, because he couldn’t save her father. He keeps having to insist that he did not kill the man, but she doesn’t make it particularly easy for him.
It is only then that we realize this has all been the backstory. The real story takes place on a Saturday evening in October, 5 months after her father has passed away. The doctor calls her once again, inviting her out, trying to convince her that he is not to blame. Even though our narrator finally understands that he is, indeed, not to blame, she does not want to take the doctor up on his offer. She summarizes it in a single line: “he can’t lose my father and win the girl, too.”
Upon rejecting him she hangs up, makes a single cup of coffee, and watches the red button glow, “waiting to hear the almost imperceptible click” that tells her it is time.
- The story starts out mentioning the potential coffee date. In the real world coffee dates are traditionally an early dating phase staple. Established couples tend to consider coffee runs a pit stop, on the way to the actual date, or more commonly, to an errand run. The fact that the doctor is asking the narrator out on a coffee date signifies that despite all the months of caring for her father, she did not let him get too close.
- The doctor calls her once more on October, before Halloween. Fall is a dark and fairly cold time of year. All her neighbors have decorated their homes, but her house remains unadorned and dark. It is clear that losing her father to cancer was frightful. It made her feel alone, out in the cold, and lost in the dark. Receiving the doctor’s phone call brings her the clarity she needs to not only reject him, but to finally notice the light being emitted by her coffee maker.
- Speaking of which, she stares at the light, waiting for the click that tells her it’s time. This is very symbolic of death, and the common saying that goes “when it’s time…” She is somber and alone; she often thinks about death ever since her father’s passing.
Losing someone close to you can be indescribable. It is very much a “you had to be there” moment in the very worst of ways. Otherwise, no one can fathom that great of a loss. Ann Hood’s story may be short, but it touches on a topic that isn’t written enough about. If you have 10 minutes to spare, this is a must-read.