This story originally aired on February 23, 2019.
Sam Blackman’s dad wanted his four sons to find their own path — as long as it was the one he’d chosen for them.
“He was tough. He was very demanding of me in particular as the first-born son,” Sam said. “He would tell me as a kid, he’d say, ‘Sammy, you can be anything you want in this world. After you graduate from medical school.’”
Edward Blackman grew up struggling in South Philadelphia, born to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, and he became a physician by dint of grit and determination. Young Sam at first didn’t question the expectations, happily devouring his father’s medical books.
But Sam soon found he also cared about other things — things such as literature, philosophy and music. He chose to study philosophy when he went to college, leaving his father appalled.
“He thought that I was just going to study a bunch of crap at a liberal school, and that I was just going to grow out my hair long and smoke pot and waste my life,” Sam said. “We parted ways for a while.”
Sam would eventually make his way along a roundabout path back to medicine, but on his own terms. He became a pediatric oncologist. To his dad, it was like the return of the Prodigal Son.
“He was over the moon,” Sam said, “like I’d been wandering in the desert for 40 years and I’d come back. And now he could give me, instead of water and food, he gave me a stethoscope and a black bag.”
Some years later, Sam was starting a family of his own, and he began to think hard about his own upbringing. He wondered whether he was doomed to re-enact the choices his own father had made.
“And then you know what I did? I quit.”
It’s not like Sam ran off to join the circus — he instead got involved in research and cancer drug development. Even this choice was beyond his father’s comprehension.
But as the years wore on, Edward Blackman began to see the fruits of his son’s work. And more importantly, he saw the type of relationship that Sam had formed with his own daughter.
“And he said to me one day, and I think he really meant it: ‘You know, you are better at this than I ever could have been.’”