In 1881, Aunt Daphne said, not long after my first birthday, my father told the family that he had signed on with the Hopedale Mission, which was run by Moravians to improve the lives of Eskimos in Labrador. His plan, for the next six months, was to travel the coast of Labrador as an outport doctor. He said that no matter what, he would always be an Anglican. But it was his becoming a fool, not a Moravian, that most concerned his family.
In what little time they had before he was due to leave, they, my mother and the Steads, including Edward, tried to talk him out of it. They could not counter his reasons for going, for he gave none. He would not counter the reasons they gave for why he should stay, instead meeting their every argument with silence. It would be disgraceful, Mother Stead told him; him off most of the time like the men who worked the boats, except that they at least sent home for the upkeep of their families what little money they didn't spend on booze. This was not how a man born into a family of standing, and married into one, should conduct himself. Sometimes, on the invitation of Mother Stead, a minister would come by and join them in dressing down my father. He endured it all in silence for a while, then excused himself and went upstairs to his study. It was as though he was already gone, already remote from us.
Perhaps the idea to become an explorer occurred to him only after he became an outport doctor. Or he might have met explorers or heard about some while travelling in Labrador. I'm not sure.
At any rate, he had been with the Hopedale Mission just over a year, was at home after his second six-month stint, when he answered an ad he saw in an American newspaper. Applying for the position of ship's doctor on his first polar expedition, he wrote: "I have for several years now been pursuing an occupation that required arduous travel to remote places and long stretches of time away from home." Several years, not one. He said that for would-be expeditionaries, such embellishments were commonplace.
He signed on with his first expedition in 1882. A ship from Boston bound for what he simply called "the North" put in at St. John's to take him on.
First a missionary, now an explorer. And him with a wife and a two-year-old son, and a brother whose lifetime partner he had pledged to be. My aunt's husband, my uncle Edward.
Father Stead had been a doctor, and it was his wish, which they obliged, that his two sons "share a shingle" with him. My father, older by a year, deferred his acceptance at Edinburgh so that he and Uncle Edward could enrol together. The brothers Stead came back the Doctors Stead in 1876. In St. John's, Anglicans went to Anglican doctors, whose numbers swelled to nine after the return home of Edward and my father. On the family shingle were listed one-third of the Anglican doctors in the city. It read, "Dr. A. Stead, Dr. F. Stead and Dr. E. Stead, General Practitioners and Surgeons," as if Stead was not a name, but the initials of some credential they had all earned, some society of physicians to which all of them had been admitted.
Three years after their graduation from Edinburgh, Father Stead died, but the shingle was not altered. Until his death, the two brothers had shared a waiting room, but afterwards my father moved into his father's surgery, across the hall. From the door that had borne both brothers' names, my father's was removed. It was necessary to make only one small change to the green-frosted window of grandfather's door: the intial A was removed and the initial F put in its place. F for Francis.
Even without Father Stead, the family practice thrived. When asked who their doctor was, people said "the Steads," as if my father and Edward did everything in tandem: examinations, diagnoses, treatments. When they arrived at reception, new patients were not asked which of the brothers they wished to see -- nor, in most cases, did they arrive with their minds made up. Patients were assigned on an alternating basis. To swear by one of the brothers Stead was to swear by the other.
Excerpted from The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston. Copyright 2002 by Wayne Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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