Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Two

With the news that my wonderful father, Dr. Al DiGiovanni, will be honored by the Drexel University College of Medicine (now consolidated with Hahnemann Medical School, the institution from which he graduated in 1960) for 50 esteemed years in the medical profession, it is only fitting to focus this next installment on the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

As I mentioned in Fun Facts, I initially planned to make “Rose” my main character Madeline’s middle name, before deciding that it made an excellent surname for the entire family. Rose happens to be my wonderful mother’s first name, while Madeline (technically the Italian version, Madelina) had belonged to my maternal grandmother. So it had always been a given that I would create a character named Madeline Rose as a tribute to both women (I’ll discuss the character of Madeline Rose, who is based on me, in another post).

Like my dad, Dr. Joseph Rose is a successful doctor with an outgoing personality; deep love of family and friends; passionate allegiance to the Philadelphia Phillies; and abiding zest for life. In fact, Joseph Rose is pretty much a mirror-image of his real-life counterpart with the exception that his specialty is neurosurgery, whereas my dad’s had been general and vascular surgery. I specifically chose neurosurgery for Dr. Rose, knowing that his daughter Madeline would struggle with panic and anxiety disorder in the novel. Prior to her correct diagnosis, the medical profession would have to rule out possible brain abnormalities. By making her father an expert in this area, it helped to intensify his and his wife’s distress over their youngest child’s worrisome symptoms, which mimicked those of a patient with a serious neurological disorder.

In all other aspects — and perhaps most importantly in their representation of The American Dream — Dr. Joseph and Dr. Al are synonymous. Both are products of immigrant parents who migrated to the United States from Italy, in search of economic freedom and opportunity. Both grew up in the “inner city”, a section of Philadelphia known as Germantown, in a small row-home shared with their parents and three brothers. Both aspired to be Major League Baseball pitchers, but had to turn to their second-love, medicine, when career-ending injuries forever shattered their dreams of pitching no-hitters to packed stadiums of loyal, enthusiastic fans. Finally, both are eternal optimists, grateful for the opportunities afforded them in a free and prosperous country where even the sons of broken-English-speaking immigrants could raise themselves up to greater heights, fueled by their own passion, persistence, hard work and determination.

These are the qualities that define my dad and his character. I have to admit, there was much I took for granted growing up as a doctor’s daughter — namely, my father’s stunning transition from a poor boy with big dreams to a well-respected surgeon with a loyal patient following. I didn’t fully appreciate the obstacles he’d faced and overcome, having only known him an accomplished member of the medical profession. And since he was never one to harp too much (although he had his moments) about how tough life was when he was a kid, (preferring instead to talk about the positives of being part of a close-knit, though financially challenged family), most of the stories I remember involve food, cooking, laughter, childhood pranks and parental devotion.

Not that things were always rosy. There was the occasional brush with bigotry, as when Chestnut Hill Hospital refused to bring an “Eye-talian” doctor on board, resulting in my parents’ move to Delaware County, where he was offered staff positions at Mercy Catholic Medical Center and Riddle Memorial Hospital. And years prior, the tragic and unexpected loss of his mother when he was just a 19 year-old college student.

And yet, my dad persisted — always with an attitude of gratitude and an optimistic outlook.

In spite of his success, neither of my parents ever forgot their roots (although as the daughter of a pharmacist  who owned a corner drugstore in the neighborhood, my mom had grown up in a relatively affluent environment by comparison). Their closest friends included people from all walks of life — doctors, dentists, plumbers, printers, small business-owners, truck drivers and military veterans.

As children, we were taught to be proud of our family members for their accomplishments, but never to think that we were better than anyone else by virtue of what our father did for a living. And my dad certainly walked his talk. Whenever we were out in public places like restaurants, he would always engage our waiter or waitress in friendly conversation, so much so that typically by the end of our meal, we knew as much about that person as they were willing to share — which was normally a great deal, thanks to Dr. Al’s genuine interest and friendly nature.

Ok, I’ll admit, as a kid I found this somewhat embarrassing, just as my mother — a much more reserved person when it came to strangers — often did. We’d joke affectionately about how Dad felt absolutely compelled to know as much as he could about people he’d most likely never bump into again. But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate and respect this rare quality, particularly in the frantic, me-first culture we’re currently living in. If more people treated strangers, especially those who work in the service industry, as my dad did (and continues to do), our world would be a much better place.

Thanks for the great lessons, Dad! I hope I’ve done you justice in the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

Note: In my next installment, I will create a comparison/contrast between Dr. Joseph Rose and Ken Lockheart, my novel’s embodiments of the American Dream and the two most important men in Madeline’s life.

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1 Comment

Filed under Professional Experience, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal

One response to “Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Two

  1. Kelly

    Your father sounds like me and your mother my husband. I am unfailingly interested in all I meet and will engage in conversation with the same ease of sinking into a warm tub.

    My husband is more reticent, but I see him smiling at me from “over there.”

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