Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The engineer's way of death -- Part 2

The first pages of that first red notebook are ruled by my father into rows and columns, and each cell is filled with numbers. The pages look for all the world like a computer spreadsheet application, VisiCalc, for example, usually considered the first spreadsheet, which came along in the late 1970s, a half-dozen years after my father's death, and revolutionized the keeping and analysis of data. He would have loved to have been there at the dawn of the personal computer age -- when the Commodore PET and the Apple II appeared in 1979. He was a slide rule man -- he owned several, linear and circular -- and just missed the arrival of the first electronic calculators. He might have been astonished how quickly slide rules became obsolete, but his death-bed journals, with their spreadsheet-like tabulations of data, suggest he would have been quick to have adopted a computer at work and at home.

What went into the cells of his "spreadsheets"? Horizontally the days, vertically the hours. Carefully entered: the times he received each medication, with notes on pain and sense of well-being. A code for each medication. PK=painkiller. C=cortisone (a steroid hormone). V=Valium. SP=sleeping pill. There was also the morphine, and the laxative -- a veritable pharmacy of pills and shots. He had no control over his mix of medications, at least not at the beginning; that was determined by his doctors. And initially no control over when he received them. What he wanted to know was their effect. From his spreadsheet he hoped to discover the patterns -- the causal relations between pills and pain -- that would yield the most benefit.

Even in the first weeks of the journals it is clear (to those of us reading them now) that the disease had the edge. My father's neat engineering hand wavers in and out of legibility; for some parts of the medication cycles his print is precise and familiar, other times it is barely readable and full of misspellings. The data accumulates, becoming, I would guess, ever more intractable because of its sheer volume.

If he had had a laptop there by his hospital bed, with spreadsheet software, he would have only to have clicked a button to run the numbers, to look for the correlations. What he had instead was a book with blank pages, which he filled from edge to edge with notes and numbers. The journals fatten, line by line, entry by entry, page by page, and somewhere in all that tidy hand or drug-induced scribble was hidden (he believed) the sort of miracle that might have taken a more pious seeker to Lourdes. He believed in God, and he believed that God had a plan for his life. But the God he believed in was not the sort who went in for flashy showmanship -- the throw-down-your-crutches-and-walk sort of thing. His God was the Great Engineer who had designed he whole shebang and set it going, the deity who set and kept the planets moving in exacting courses. For his Great Engineer, fixing a cancer patient's body would be as ordinary and everyday a thing as repairing a short in an electric toaster.