By ROSEMARY LAUGHLIN
Anyone who has flown can recall unpleasant seat mates. I have a very memorable opposite.
Chicago was our conversation starter. Bob Oliver grew up and worked there. He unfolded this story.
Divorced and lonely, Bob socialized through his church. He met a lovely woman with a 6-year-old daughter.
After he married Vicki, he discovered Jenny in daily life. He chauffeured her, read to her, helped her with math. He showed her how bike gears work and how to fix a punctured tire.
Bob didn't interfere with her biological father. But once he heard her say to a friend, "Tomorrow I'm going to my real dad's house!" That hit him sharply. Did she feel that he was cheap and artificial?
Bob grew more attached to Vicki and Jenny. He attended Jenny's every event. Then he heard Jenny say to a friend, "My parents are here." Parents! The plural included him.
When Jenny finished eighth grade, she was assigned to a distant high school because of an equity mandate. Her friends were scattered.
Jenny was devastated. Bob's heart ached. "Hey," he said, "maybe Jenny would like St. Thaddeus High where I went?"
Jenny went to St. Thad's website and liked what she saw. She was invited to a class day. She was sold. "I told the kids I was a legacy," she remarked. Bob's heart soared with pleasure.
Jenny thrived at St. Thad's. She made friends. She loved her teachers. She became interested in science. She volunteered at a pediatrics cancer ward. She decided she wanted to be a doctor. Her friends talked about applying to Duke, Oberlin, Yale.
"I'll never get into places like that!"Jenny wailed. "My grades are good, but my SAT scores aren't great."
St. Thad's counselor advised second-tier colleges for pre-meds. Better to be in the top 10 percent than the bottom 10 percent. Obsession with elite schools was foolish.
Bob had an idea. He said to Jenny, "Do you prefer being a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? St. Thad's is small; you were able to stand out."
Jenny adored being a big fish. She enrolled at a small college. She was sure she would flow right into medical school.
But she did not. Her MCAT score was too low. She was rejected everywhere she applied.
Bob suffered. He called the biology department counselor, who advised going to a state university for a master's degree in a specialty like genetics or integrative biology. "It only takes a year to earn. She couldn't have better preparation for the MCAT. Or, If she goes for an MAT in biology, she can teach in high school if she doesn't make med school."
Jenny was too dejected to listen to anything beyond "if she doesn't make it." Bob took her to an old favorite fishing spot. She pulled up a flopping bluegill. "An omen!" he cried. "You'll get what you're after, Jen."
She laughed. "OK, Dad! I'll go for the genetics degree."
Dad! Until now she had called him Bob.
A year later, she had completed her degree, taken the MCAT and been accepted at med school.
From day one, medical school was tough. Jenny was frightened. "I'm terrified. Enormous memorization. I can't sleep. I'll die if I flunk out."
Bob fretted. Vicki scolded. "She gets rid of it when she dumps it on us. Don't take it in."
But worry he did. His attention wandered at work. He lit a votive candle each Sunday at church. Somehow months slipped by.
Then Jenny announced she'd been invited to the White Coat Ceremony.
She explained that each student received a white medical coat before beginning "rounds" — clinical experience with medical specialties. The coats were alphabetically arranged on desks in a classroom by the name embroidered on the coat.
Jenny met them. "Get my coat, Dad. I'd like you to help me put it on. You've done so much for me."
Bob felt elation, then — perplexity. No Flanner in the F's. Had Jenny been misinformed? Sweat beaded Bob's face.
"Keep looking, Dad!" Jenny was puling his arm.
He saw O'Connell, and then — Oliver!
"That's right. Oliver. I've legally changed my name. That's what you mean to me. And that's what you'll continue to mean to Dr. Oliver!"
Bob was overwhelmed with surprise, joy, gratitude.
He was aware of a current flowing in the depths of his being. He was a father with his name living in a beloved daughter.
Rosemary Laughlin is a writer and retired English teacher from University High School.