Your Voice

A teenager is mistakenly impressed by her lawyer dad

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Norm Tabler

Norm Tabler.

When my daughter was in college back in the '90s, she knew I was a lawyer specializing in health law. She knew I had left private practice after 20 years to become general counsel of a large statewide hospital system. And she knew I spent my workdays at a desk reading, writing and talking on the phone.

That’s about all she knew—or cared to know—about my professional life. She was, and still is, unwavering in her love and affection for me, but it was always clear she thought my workday sounded like a long winter in a Siberian gulag. And from her perspective, I guess it was. She has always been very active and couldn’t work at a desk all day for love or money. She would eventually own and operate a home management, cleaning and organizing company requiring (and enabling) her to spend the workday going from one home to another.

I am hardly the first father whose college-age offspring thought his work was boring, and come to think of it, Dad was too. Anyone who has seen a family sitcom knows dads are boring, especially to their children. It’s in the dad job description. It never bothered me. I suppose I never really thought about it or even noticed it until the night when my daughter was impressed by me.

She and her boyfriend were home on one of their college’s innumerable vacations and breaks—I can’t recall which one. The college academic year, like boxes of cereal and candy bars, keeps shrinking while becoming ever more expensive.

At one point in the early evening, my daughter was upstairs getting ready to go out with her boyfriend and my wife was in the kitchen preparing our dinner. That meant the boyfriend and I were left alone in the family room, and it fell to me to fulfill another part of the dad job description: Talk with the boyfriend even though the two of you have nothing in common except your daughter.

The boyfriend, fulfilling part of the boyfriend job description, asked the obligatory, “What do you do for a living, sir?” question, along with the also obligatory, “What does that involve?” follow-up.

Drawing in a deep breath, I began my recitation: Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, third-party contracting, antitrust analysis and counseling, provider credentialing, peer review proceedings …. By that point, his eyes were glazing over and even I was drifting off. But suddenly he sat up straight, his eyes wide and no longer glazed.

“What’s that last thing?” he asked.

Searching my short-term memory, I recalled I had concluded my litany with the term “end-of-life issues.” Belatedly, I realized that end of life was the one subject in my list that might spark the interest of a teenage boy. Oh, why hadn’t I stuck with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement?

End of life was not a subject I was particularly keen to talk about. But he had asked, so I responded with something like, “Well, for example, if a patient’s medical situation has become hopeless and further treatment would merely prolong the process of dying as well as the patient’s pain, the physician and the family might approach the legal department for guidance on withdrawal of life support.”

Looking back, I realize my answer was hopelessly long-winded, but remember, I had spent two decades in private practice, charging by the hour.

At about that point my daughter appeared, dressed for an evening on the town, and the two of them departed. I was relieved to be freed of my boyfriendsitting duties. I probably would never have thought about the conversation again, except for what happened at about midnight that same evening.

I had been asleep for a couple of hours (As a boring dad, I went to bed early). I was awakened by my daughter, sitting on the side of the bed and gently shaking my shoulder. Clearly excited, she gushed, “Dad, you never told me! Why didn’t you tell me? I had no idea!”

She looked at me with wide-eyed admiration, even awe. I was flattered but had to admit I had no idea what she was talking about. Her face showed even more admiration in reaction to what she mistakenly thought was my modesty.

“Oh come on, Dad. You know. It’s what you told Neil. Why didn’t you ever tell me? It’s so amazing that you’re the one they have to come to at a time like that!”

Still baffled, I finally convinced her that, indeed, I really didn’t know what she was talking about.

“You know, Dad! That it’s illegal in this state to pull the plug without first checking with you! That they can’t pull it without your OK! That you’re the one that always has the final say over life and death!”

That was the only time my daughter seemed the least bit impressed by what I did for a living. To my discredit, I waited a couple of beats to savor the moment before correcting her. Then to my credit, I explained how badly Neil had misunderstood what I said.

There is a postscript: The episode has entered family lore and become a continuing source of humor, always at my expense—another part of the dad job description. Why at my expense? Because the end-of-life episode is a reminder of the sheer absurdity of thinking that Dad’s work could be interesting, let alone dramatic. At least once a month, usually when I least expect it, my wife or daughter will turn to me with a deadly serious expression and solemnly intone, “Can we pull it?”

It’s their way of telling me I’m being too serious.

Norm Tabler is a retired lawyer whose focused on health law. He serves on the editorial advisory boards of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division’s Voice of Experience e-newsletter (for which he writes the column “Adventures in the Law”) and Experience magazine; and the Indiana State Bar Association’s Res Gestae magazine (for which he writes the column “Annals of the Law”). He writes and records a monthly podcast, The Lighter Side of Health Law, for the American Health Law Association’s Health Law Weekly. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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