Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To the End of Limbo

My dad wasn’t a trained surgeon but he did the best he could. There were times at the jungle hospital in Ecuador when he operated mainly by following diagrams in a tome that might have been called The Joy of Surgery. Critically injured patients’ lives would be hanging by a thread, and Wally would stand there with an open textbook at the operating table, humming There is a Balm in Gilead.

Dad borrowed our Tinkertoy wheels and strung up elaborate pulley systems to hold patients’ broken legs in traction. When his patients needed a blood transfusion, Dad would implore the families in the waiting room to donate a pint or two. If that wasn’t enough, he would stride across the compound to our house and hit up my mother--sometimes in the middle of the night with the patient still on the operating table.

Mom was a universal blood donor and became accustomed to these nocturnal sanguineous visitations. It got to the point where she would just roll over in bed, extend her left arm, and barely wake up. Dad would suck out a bright purple pint with a big syringe and trot back to work.

I shared this story with a young Red Cross phlebotomist at the New Hope Fire Station blood drive last Saturday. She looked at me with an expression of bemused horror--the sort of look a phlebotomist might give a wise guy who cracks, “Confidentially, I should tell you my parents were vampires. Do you find me attractive?”

In the early 1970s a special visitor descended on our house and my parents treated him like he was the Archangel Michael. Our guest was a blond mustachioed young surgeon from Washington, D.C. My parents were determined to recruit him to come down there and help Dad. The surgeon’s name was John Doerfer.

One afternoon during Dr. Doerfer’s sojourn with us, a teenaged accident victim was brought into the hospital, splayed out in the back of a pickup taxi. He’d been hit by a bus and had quite a number of broken bones. Dad and Dr. Doerfer sprung into action. I happened to be hanging around and chose this moment to tell Dad that I’d been thinking of becoming a doctor myself someday. In a flash of well-meaning but misplaced pedagogical enthusiasm, Dad invited me into the operating room to watch him and Dr. Doerfer perform surgery on this multiple trauma victim. “Maybe you’ll learn something!” he said.

Dad was the picture of jovial serenity as he assisted Dr. Doerfer in the operation--humming gospel choruses, making small talk with his friends Beth the anesthetist and Eleanor the instrument-handing nurse, and complimenting young John’s surgical chops.

For his part, Dr. Doerfer appeared to be slightly freaked out. As the hours passed, he became more and more anxious. “Wally, we’re never going to finish this in time. We’ve got to wake him up--he’s been down too long. There are a lot of things we need...”

Dad acted like he and John might have been assembling a slightly complicated model airplane on a Sunday afternoon. “It’s looking great, John! Let’s keep going! You want something to eat? We’ve got bananas. Could somebody get John a banana?”

Dad loved surgery almost as much as trout fishing. He was a little better at surgery.

Night fell and eventually I de-gowned and left the hospital and walked back to the house. On the far horizon to the west, I saw what looked like a red ember glowing on the cone of Mt. Sangay--a rare sight from fifty miles away.

The next morning dawned clear and Sangay remained visible along with its jagged-topped neighbor, El Altar. At the breakfast table, Mom explained to Dr. Doerfer that he had been granted a rare vision: seeing Sangay erupt at night and then the snowcaps rising out of the mist in the morning. Mom opined that this was a sure sign the Lord was calling John Doerfer to move to the jungle for good. “What do you think, John? Huh?”

Dr. Doerfer wasn’t saying. He looked like a man who had spent the night in one of those secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan: wrung out and in no mood for further questions. He departed shortly thereafter, offering little clue as to his future plans and leaving my parents in limbo.

* * *

During our family’s first decade in Ecuador, we never owned a car--even when we moved to Quito. My mother would carry a big basket on the bus down to the Santa Clara open market, hire a sturdy-looking urchin to trail around behind her while she picked out our fresh groceries for the week, then hail a taxi to drive her and the basket home.

In 1973, we came back to Minnesota on furlough and finally got a car of our own. It was a jimdandy--a twelve-passenger Chevrolet van with a long and distinguished history of service as a National Car Rental shuttle vehicle at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. My dad’s brother-in-law Sheldon was a vice president at National and worked out some kind of a deal on the van. It was practically free; all we had to do was drive it to South America.

The day we got the van from Uncle Sheldon, Dad motored over to Grandpa Arvid’s house to display his splendid new chariot. Grandpa was bothered by the National Car Rental logos painted on the sides. (He had the same impulse that I’d had upon receiving Melvin Christiansen’s used baseball glove for Christmas with Melvin’s name block-lettered on it: Let’s paint over that.)

Arvid found some white enamel paint in his basement and proceeded to brush over the National logos forthwith. The effect was not quite what Dad was hoping for. The repainted ovals were flat-finished and off shade from the rest of the car. It now gave the impression that we’d stolen a utility van from a plumber.

A couple of days later, our family packed into the van and left Minnesota. We planned to cross over into Mexico at El Paso, Texas, but took a circuitous route through the western states. When we got into Wyoming, I convinced Dad to let me drive. I was sixteen and didn’t even have a learner’s permit, but I’d heard an urban legend that Wyoming--being the Wild West and all that--let kids drive without a license. I also told him I’d had a lot of practice driving friends’ cars in Quito when I went away to high school. Dad seemed to think this could be true, and before I knew it, I was bombing along through the Tetons at seventy-five miles per hour with my elbow crooked out the window and my family unaware of their peril.

Eventually we reached El Paso, crossed over into Ciudad Juarez, and headed down the Panamerican Highway into Central America. We sped through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica on our way to Panama City where we planned to put the van on a boat to Guayaquil. I remember the scenery in all these countries as a magnificent green blur, because Dad had a goal of doing one country per day. He made an exception for Mexico, which extends about two thousand miles.

We all slept in the van by the side of the road, oblivious to wild animals, bandidos, right-wing death squads, and narcotraficantes. We ate freeze dried camping food. Sometimes we made a fire. I was reading The Grapes of Wrath and it felt like we were the Joads. Actually there wasn’t enough sleeping room for everybody inside the van, so most nights, weather permitting, I stretched out on the roof. I would lie up there gazing at the stars and ponder deep philosophical questions, the top three being: (1) If a person could travel to the edge of the universe, what would he find on the other side (and if the answer is “nothing,” then what was the difference between nothing and a separate empty universe?) (2) If God was willing to kill Bathsheba’s baby who hadn’t done anything wrong, then why didn’t he just kill Hitler? (3) Would I ever have a girlfriend?

When we arrived in Costa Rica, we stayed with a family who would soon join us in Ecuador: It was the Doerfers. John and Mary had signed up for the mission after all, and were now studying Spanish at a language school in San Jose. That night I got to sleep in a real bed that rightfully belonged to the Doerfers’ small son, Johnny, who was evicted from his room as an act of hospitality.

In Panama City we boarded a plane for Quito. I had wanted us to drive all the way through, but Dad said the Panamerican ended in northern Colombia. Where exactly? This was never clear. Apparently, the road petered out somewhere in a misty limbo between the National Car Rental garage and a jungle hospital where a man's broken leg was suspended by Tinkertoys.

* * *

At the end of my junior year at the Alliance Academy, my cousin Jay Anderson came to Ecuador. He was an art major at the University of Minnesota and a singer-songwriter with shoulder-length blond hair. I thought he was the coolest person in the world. Jay’s mother, my Aunt Corinne, had written a letter to Dad asking him to put Jay to some useful missionary work. Jay’s idea was to climb the Andes, explore the Amazon, and be a traveling troubadour.

Somewhere in the Ecuadorian Oriente, Jay acquired an eight-foot boa constrictor. He was determined to take this rather large serpent back to Minnesota as a personal effect. In Quito, he found out there was an orphan being adopted by a couple in Minneapolis, and this gave him a brilliant idea. Jay offered to transport the baby to Minnesota, but his bold and secret plan was to smuggle the boa constrictor into the United States of America in the bottom of diaper bag.

Incredibly, this mad scheme worked. Jay breezed through customs in Miami. The authorities focused all their attention on the baby and the adoption paperwork and never thought to check under a stack of diapers for an eight-foot slithering rat swallower.

Back in Minnesota, Jay moved in with my Grandpa Arvid’s two elderly spinster sisters, Olga and Agnes, whom everybody called “the Aunties”. They had a little two-story house in south Minneapolis, and Jay lived with them while he went to college. The Aunties adored my cousin, whom they called “Yay,” and he was equally fond of them. But something happened that year that would put a strain in their relationship for a season: The snake disappeared inside the Aunties’ house without a trace.

The boa stayed at large all winter--that’s about nine months in Minnesota--leaving the Aunties in limbo. They had to wonder every time they went in the basement if they might trip over a snake the size of a short fire hose. Then one day in the spring, Jay came home and found the Aunties in a triumphant mood. They had recaptured Balboa in the basement after all, safely incarcerating the beast in a small fortress they had built out of stacked apple crates.

* * *

It was 1994 and I was trying again to reach Stan George, my editor at Oxford University Press. I’d sent him the final edits to my manuscript but I hadn’t heard from him in two months. Now he wasn’t returning my phone calls. I dialed one more time and got his voicemail: “This is Stan George. I’m sorry I can’t come to the phone right now. Leave me a message and I will call you back at my earliest opportunity.”

That was the last straw. I’d had enough. I would go over Stan’s head and call his boss. I looked up the number of someone at the press with a higher-sounding title than Stan’s and phoned in a huff.

“Mr. George is ignoring me!” I fairly shouted. “I’ve left numerous messages but he won’t return my calls. This is unprofessional. What’s happening with my book? I’ve been left in limbo for two months.”

What followed next was a long and awkward pause, then this: “Professor Swanson, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Stan is dead. He passed away some time ago. I guess we should have changed his voicemail message.”

Changed his message, I thought? Changed it to what? How about: “Hello, you’ve reached the desk of Stan George. I REALLY can’t come to the phone right now... because I’m dead. But thanks for calling, and have a lovely day.”

When the book finally came out, Oxford printed up promotional flyers and sent me a stack of them. I sent one to my department chairman, Allen Frances. Shortly thereafter, I met with Dr. Frances for my annual faculty evaluation.

“Thanks for sending me that book announcement,” Allen said. “What’s it about again? Missionaries in Ecuador? Anyway, I’m glad you’re done with it. You probably had your own reasons for writing it, and it shows you’re a civilized person. But I don’t want you to think it’s going to help you get tenure in the medical school here. In fact, I really don’t believe you’re ever going to get tenure. It’s just a fact. You’re a sociologist in a clinical department. That’s a tough sell. But you know, write some grants and a few more papers, and maybe you’ll be able to move somewhere. Duke will look good on your CV wherever you end up.”

Suddenly I felt anxious and cold--like the Aunties in the middle of an endless winter and possibly in bed with a snake.

* * *

It’s November 2007 and I’m at an elegant wine-and-cheese reception at the University Club, surrounded by my colleagues, close friends, and family. The special occasion is to celebrate my promotion to the rank of Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences with tenure at Duke Medical School.

The co-sponsor and host of this affair is my personal investment advisor and portfolio manager, who is also an old and dear friend. His name is John Doerfer, Jr. John now lives in Chapel Hill, is a divorced father of four, and just returned from a journey to Ecuador where he stayed with my brother Tod in the jungle. He revisited the mission hospital where our fathers worked together; the house where both our families lived at the different times in the 1960 and 1970s; and the bedroom that was first mine and then his.

Jay and Wendy Anderson walk in, fresh from the airport and just having stepped off a plane from Minnesota. Jay says this feels like a Hollywood movie.

Johnny Doerfer approaches the mic and reads a kind letter from my Yale mentor, Kai Erikson. Then my Duke colleague Marvin Swartz reads a funny fake letter from Allen Francis, our former chairman. (Allen left Duke long ago, and contrary to his dire predictions I’m still here.) Marvin presents me with a few charming gifts, effluvia of liberal academic culture: a nationwide map of NPR stations, a Chia pet that will grow a tangled mat of green hair on the head of Professor Einstein, and a beer top opener that spouts memorable Bushisms like, “You’re working hard to put food on your family.”

Jay Anderson stands to speak. The blond hippie tresses are long gone; the story of the baby and the boa and its heroic recapture by the Aunties has joined the canon of Swanson family legend. Jay has become a pillar of the community and a true craftsman like our Grandpa Arvid--a builder and a guitar maker and father of three grown children of his own. He looks over the gathered assembly, which includes a distinguished professoriate with Ivy League degrees, and says “I don’t care what you do. . . ” He pauses and looks down for split second, as if from a high diving board. “I care who you are.” Then Jay rises into an eloquent and generous tribute--a spontaneous meditation on the meaning of friendship, family, personal character, and the passage of time.

I listen to Jay and I wish my mom were alive to hear this. I wish Dad were here, too. Despite my intention that day, long ago, when Dad let me watch him and John’s dad perform surgery on a guy who got hit by a bus, I never followed through and became a doctor. Ironically, though--and improbably--I had come to this: I was now a full professor in a medical school. My mother would have loved it.

Finally, I deliver a few prepared remarks:

. . . I turned fifty earlier this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mortality. I just wanted to tell you that if I should die anytime in the next ten years or so, none of you should feel the slightest obligation to attend the funeral. You’ve done your duty tonight. If you want this in writing, let me know.

I did want to make just a couple of remarks. I’ll try to be brief--I realize that there are certain people in this gathering who already feel obligated to spend too much of their precious time listening to me pontificate on a regular basis. (I’m thinking of my son Matt and some current and former postdoctoral fellows who are here tonight.)

Apropos of pontificating, I wanted to share with you something that I learned recently that was announced by the Vatican. We have some religious studies scholars here tonight--these guys are theologians and so they know this, but I was not aware of it. It turns out that Pope Benedict has formally abolished the Catholic notion of Limbo. This is absolutely true.

Now, Limbo is the place where the unbaptized souls go to just sort of look busy and wait and see what’s going to happen to them. So I was really sorry to see this abolished, because it always seemed to me such a perfect metaphor for the academic career without tenure.

I was concerned about what had happened to Limbo, and so I contacted a professor friend of mine who has impeccable Catholic scholarly credentials. He was trained by the Jesuits. And I asked him about Limbo. He said it was no big deal, because the Pope had not overturned an actual “doctrine.” Limbo was never a doctrine per se, but just a theological hypothesis. And this was a huge relief, I’m sure, to all the people who have actually been in Limbo--like, for hundreds of years--to find this out now.

My friend also reassured me that a related doctrine, Purgatory, remains intact, and may continue to serve as an inspiration for the academic life--especially one funded entirely on soft-money grants. Actually what most concerned my friend the Catholic scholar was not the loss of Limbo but the planet Pluto; losing Pluto was a tough blow. . .

I end my shtick and pause for a moment. My mind wanders to the time I took my Matt and his friend whitewater rafting in the mountains, and the guides turned out to be two girls younger than my son. I was the only person in the raft with the slightest appreciation of the fact that we will all surely die--perhaps today. Suspended between the raging rapids and a giant rock, I said a prayer and tried to recall how much life insurance Pam was going to collect. Then I heard the kids laughing at me and we were in the still waters.

At the University Club I proceed to thank people in earnest--one by one--for what they’ve all done and who they are. I say it’s going to be brief but this is a happy lie. I end with these words:

Finally, at a time like this, and coming from my background, really the only appropriate thing to do is to quote Scripture. So I’d like to repeat those old words, “Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things.”

With a little of that, I could survive the end of limbo. I might even be immortalized for quite some time.


Chuck said...


As someone who wrote a very strong letter for your promotion, I want to say that it was precisely because of that great book on missionaries in Ecuador that I first noticed that you are the outstanding scholar that you are. Too bad you got sidetracked into the mental health racket.


Jeff Swanson said...


Many thanks for that letter. When we are young and impressionable, we look for heroes; you were always one of mine. I thought, if a card-carrying sociologist as brilliant and erudite as Lidz would choose to spend his career doing mental health research (and masquerading as a psychiatry professor), this would be a worthy calling.


Anonymous said...

what a riot. I love the vampire missionaries.

Don said...

Fantastic writing, Jeff! I was drawn in by more than the mere fact that some of these memories came close to my own experience. Where can I get your book?

Jeff Swanson said...

Don, thanks for you comment. The book is called "Echoes of the Call: Ideology and Identity Among American Missionaries in Ecuador" (Oxford University Press, 1995.) Plenty of cheap copies on Amazon.com!