Of all the people who have affected my life, and influenced the choices I've made, none has been more important than my father.
Dr. Theodore Atlas, Sr., was legendary around Staten Island. A Hungarian Jew, originally from the Bronx, he was the kind of doctor that doesn't exist anymore. He wore a bow tie and a rumpled old raincoat and he drove an old wreck of a car to go on his house calls. He traveled all over the island, taking care of people, no matter what time of the day or night. If his patients couldn't afford to pay, he didn't charge them, and when he did charge them, the most it would be was about five dollars. Sometimes they paid him with pies or cookies. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my mother started calling him Columbo, after the character in the TV show, because of the way he dressed and because he always seemed distracted and preoccupied.
Besides his medical practice, my father somehow found time to found and build two hospitals, Sunnyside and Doctor's Hospital. He also built over a hundred houses on Staten Island, including the two we lived in — a small one-family home, and, later, a larger Colonial that he built across the street — plus some Winn-Dixies and condos down South. Think of it: here was a doctor who owned a crane and bulldozer, and on Sundays, to relax after spending an eighty-hour week practicing medicine and taking care of people, he bulldozed the empty lots on the hill where we lived so he could build houses. He even built the sewer system for the whole neighborhood.
Because my father poured all of his time and energy and feeling into his work, my mother and I and my four younger siblings, Tommy, Meri, Todd, and Terryl, often felt shortchanged — if not consciously at least in our hearts. Maybe it was easier for him to express emotions toward his patients than his family. I don't know. Even today, I run into people who were patients of his, and they all talk about how compassionate he was with them. But at home it was hard for him to show anything. He considered emotions a sign of weakness. I remember one time we were in the car and he made fun of us kids for crying over something. He started going "Wahhhh!" in this loud, mocking way. After that I never cried again, even many years later at his funeral.
Of all the kids, I was always his favorite, which made for an odd kind of tension in the house. In some ways it was like we were two families. One family was my mother, Tommy, Terryl, Todd, and Meri. The other family was my father and me. It wasn't as if I didn't have to work hard for his attention. I did. I showed an interest in science because he liked science. I'd get him to take me out on house calls with him, because that way I could be with him and spend time with him. You have to understand, this was a man who left the house every day at six-thirty or seven a.m. and came home at ten-thirty or eleven p.m. Any time that I got with him was time that I had to steal. He never asked me to go with him. I just went. Occasionally, he would get a call in the middle of the night, and I would hear the phone and wake up. By the time he was coming out of his room and down the stairs, I was sitting there, ready to go. He would tell me to go back to my room, but sometimes he would give in and let me go with him. I remember going with him on New Year's Eve once, around 1964 or '65, for a maternity case. I must have fallen asleep in the doctor's waiting room. At midnight, one of the nurses woke me up. They were all pouring soda and champagne, saying, "Your father just delivered the first baby of the New Year." Half-asleep, I joined the celebration, knowing that it was a special thing to be there, even if my father's full attention wasn't focused on me.
My mother, Mary, suffered from my father's inattention more than any of us. She was Irish and very beautiful. She'd been Miss Staten Island in 1940. Part of the prize that went along with the honor was a screen test in Hollywood. But her mother, my grandmother Helen Riley (called Gaga — the nickname I'd given her when I was young), had refused to let her go. "That's for tramps," she said. Who knows what direction my mother's life would have taken if she had gone? I'm sure she thought about that over the years. My mother was the complete opposite of my father: very social, talkative, outgoing, used to getting attention, and with a fondness for nice things. My father, meanwhile, was driving around in jalopies and wearing shoes until there were holes in them, caught up in his own world, and his very different concerns.
When my brother Todd died at the age of five, it pushed us all further apart. With some families it might have helped draw them closer; not with ours. Todd had been born retarded and with an enlarged heart, and my father, who read all the medical journals and was always up on all the latest procedures, felt that open-heart surgery, which was relatively new at the time, could help him. It was the kind of thing where if nothing was done, Todd would die by the time he was sixteen. So my father made the decision that he should have the operation, and he was there in the operating room watching when Todd died on the table.
The foregoing is excerpted from Atlas by Teddy Atlas and Peter Alson. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.