When I met Dr. Cunningham at the new Wolfgang Puck Express in one of the University of Chicago hospitals, he was 10 minutes late and on the phone. His eyes looked tired, his hair dishevelled, and his phone was as closely pressed to his ear as humanly possible. The stress he was under was obvious, but he still radiated friendly warmth. The eager helpfulness apparent in his eyes reminded me so much of my dad.
Dr. Cunningham was an old friend of my dad’s, a close one; he even spoke at his funeral.
When interviewing him, it was hard not to ask him to tell me things about my own dad. They were such good friends that it almost felt like he was capable of introducing me to parts of my dad that I didn’t know. I wanted him help me remember him, which I hadn’t been able to do in a while, in other words let me feel less far away from my dad.
As soon as he got off the phone, he apologized for being late and we walked into the line to order. It gave me chills how much if felt like being with my father when he used to take me out on daddy daughter lunches, which would usually later progress into a movie.
We both ordered Chicken Caesar Salads and sat down at a table.
While growing up in Ireland, Dr. Cunningham lost his father at the age of fourteen to a massive heart attack. At that moment his mother lost everything, and began to live through her children. As the eldest child, Dr. Cunningham felt like he had to achieve something important because he and his younger sibling’s happiness was the source of his mother’s happiness. His uncles who worked as a scientist and a veterinarian also influenced his decision to become a physician.
If he could describe himself with one word, it would be ‘doctor’. He says he loves his work and the kids he takes care of, and that any time his patients do well, it’s more of an honor than an accomplishment to take care of them. Though being a doctor is a great accomplishment for Dr. Cunningham, he says his greatest accomplishment is his family. He says that his loving wife and incredible kids heavily outweigh anything else in his life. “I cherish every memory with them as I did with my father,” he says.
His father was one of the first people to install computers throughout Europe, a great source of pride for Dr. Cunningham. In his culture, a way of honoring your parent is to do a similar thing in your professional life. Currently Dr. Cunningham’s son is at MIT studying computers. Though his children never knew their grandfather, Dr. Cunningham said he made sure to keep him as a crucial part in their upbringing, telling them stories about him and even taking them to his father’s home town in Ireland.
“I don’t think about him every day, that goes away with time,” Dr. Cunningham says, “but if I strive for good then I must be doing what he would have wanted.”