Transfer of Custody

By Anthony Kovatch, M.D., Pediatric Alliance — Arcadia


(Musical Accompaniment: “So Far Away” by American Singer/Songwriter Carole King)


“Breaking Home Ties”  by Norman Rockwell, 1954


“I once did a cover showing a father seeing his son off to college. That year my three boys had gone away and I’d had an empty feeling – it took me a while to adjust without them. This poignancy was what I wanted to get across in the picture. But there was humor in it too. I put a funny kind of suit on the boy because he was a ranch boy leaving home for the first time. And his father was holding two hats, one the boy’s beat-up old rancher’s hat and the other his brand-new hat. The boy was carrying a lunch box all done up in pink ribbon. I drew a collie dog with his head on the boy’s lap. I got most of my fan letters about the dog. You see the father couldn’t show how he felt about the boy’s leaving. The dog did.”

— Norman Rockwell, 1960


Breaking Home Ties, 2018


I recently did a story about a doctor seeing his youngest son off to medical school in Kansas City. The doctor’s three older children had long left the homestead and each one had moved farther and farther away, but this child was the first to enter a different time zone. Furthermore, this son had been a contributor to The PediaBlog as well as a supporting actor for one of the doctor’s most far-reaching stories:

About a week later something seemed incongruous with the seemingly terminating pregnancy: the hormone levels were rising rather than falling. A fetal sonogram was performed. In previous situations the radiologist had personally disclosed the sad reality that the sac was empty. This time he strolled into the room and pointed to the screen. “There is the heart — you can see it beating.”We knew then that the baby was a fighter.

The rest is history. The miracle child — known to his close friends as “Hobo Joe” — would become a long distance runner and run a half marathon before he was a teenager. Dorothy died before she could ever see Hobo Joe run, or play baseball, or even “play catch” with his old man. As irony would have it, the kid never got into baseball; maybe he just could not resist the loneliness and ecstasy of the long distance runner.


Similar to the fledging collegiate in Rockwell’s iconic painting, the young man in my photo appears happy and “dizzy with success,” since he really has no idea what he is in for. Like the pensive, saddened farmer of Rockwell holding two hats, the doctor is also sad and bewildered, but for a different reason. He is a professional and has trained himself during forty years of medical practice to conceal his true emotions. However, the viewer can certainly sense his grief — the Band-Aids on the overworn tie cover his heart. He puts his wedding ring on display; he knows only his wife can save him since only the two of them have shared all the same memories of the young pre-med student.

One can sense that the doctor is clutching his forty-year-old overworn black bag as if it might be blown away in a Kansas tornedo. The bag contains years of memories of his doctoring triumphs and tragedies. He wants to simply gift it to his youngest son, but he knows very well that the contents of the bag are not transferable; they can only be earned by “blood, sweat, and tears.”

But as the readers may have already guessed, the most critical player in the story is the parakeet “Moses” the boy is holding for a few seconds, knowing that it will also be quick to fly away. The little beast (fondly referred to as “the budgerigar” or “the budgie” — and claimed to be “better than most birds!”) has been his most intimate friend and confidant for five years, and the two share a relationship no different than that of the boy and the dog in the Rockwell painting. Moses has been the most endearing of a series of “service birds” which have helped the boy conquer his type 1 diabetes over the past decade-and-a-half of his formative “wonder years.”  

However, in spite of his affection for the boy and his mother, Moses has generally had a mutually annoying relationship with the father, pecking him and stealing his corn. I thought the bird (unlike the dog) put on a pretty good face of stoicism in the photograph, since I truly believe he is fully aware of his master’s permanent departure. A “Puff the Magic Dragon” scenario must be avoided:  “Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave — so Puff that mighty Dragon slowly slipped into his grave.”

Indeed, the doctor feels sorry for Moses; he knows that he must adopt and assume full-fledged custody of the bird the boy loved so much. The black bag and the bird must be switched — the son will learn and acquire the tools of the noblest of professions; his old man must nobly surrender his wisdom to the boy, teach him the art of medical practice (which he cannot completely learn in Kansas City), and, most importantly, keep Moses content and well-fed with corn until the boy comes home for the holidays.


Transaction Initiated


“God Bless The Child” by Blood, Sweat and Tears