Today would have been my dad’s 71st birthday, and while he and I were pretty tight I’ve been thinking back to the hands-down dumbest thing I did in our entire relationship, an astoundingly clueless moment in which our otherwise solid father-son thing was sorely tested. Not by him, and not by me. By Doctor Nick Riviera.

It must have been 16, 17 years ago by now – today I’m not entirely sure which year it was – but it was definitely February, because it all started after a snowstorm. My dad had been shoveling,and you know what happens when middle aged guys shovel snow in the winter… actually nothing happened at first, but a few days later he felt like he had the flu or something and he went to the doctors they said it was more than the flu and by the time I heard what was going on he was already in the hospital.

They were getting him ready for open heart surgery but I don’t suppose he was terribly ready – who would be, after all, given that he thought he had the flu or something. What’s more, they admitted him on a Saturday, I think, and the surgery wasn’t going to happen until Monday morning. That’s a lot of time to kill, watching those hospital TVs all the way on the other side of the room, or, worse, confronting the situation head-on. I suspect that’s why my mom suggested my sister and I go over to see him. “Maybe bring a movie,” I seem to remember her suggesting, even though my dad had not watched anything of his own volition but the Weather Channel in some time.

And this is where the trouble started – my sister and I didn’t want to bring a movie because Dad wouldn’t really want to watch it, but we (correctly) figured that none of us would want to actually talk about what was going on. Somehow we hit on a solution: we’d watch an episode of The Simpsons, which, to be honest, is what we would have been doing under normal circumstances. So we drove over to the hospital (overcast day, possibly a snow flurry) and took the elevator up to a smallish, somewhat drab room that contained your usual complement of hospital room accoutrements and one subdued dad in a hospital gown. Fortunately, we had just the thing to brighten even this dire situation – a wacky adventure with Homer Simpson and family. We put the video into the machine and prepared to make dad’s day.

The episode we chose is called “Homer’s Triple Bypass.” It begins with a montage of Homer making bad choices – bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of oatmeal, for example – and being dealt a bad hand, like when Mr. Burns chews Homer out on a malevolent whim. Homer, never the picture of health, buckles under the abuse and succumbs to a massive heart attack, his soul returning to his body only on the Burns’ promise to “send a ham to the widow.” Of course the ham offer is immediately withdrawn when Homer shows signs of life.

From there, the Simpsons start navigating the world of open heart surgery – including the costs, which is why they turn away from the expensive but competent Dr. Hibbert and opt instead for the resident quack of the Simpsons universe, Dr. Nick Riviera, known best for his frequent appearances on TV infomercials (“Sun and Run… the suntan lotion that’s also a laxative!”) and a promise to perform any surgery for $129.95, providing one calls his toll-free number, 1-600-DOCTORB (“the B is for ‘bargain’!”). They spend the rest of the episode walking this comic tightrope, with the family recognizing Dr. Nick for the unbelievably sleazy hack he is but recognizing that he’s their only hope of keeping Homer alive. And somehow he manages to pull it off, with a little help from his surgical scrubs (“these gloves came free with my toilet brush!”), from Lisa (“Hey! The incision should be made below the blockage! Below!”) and only a few flubs (“the something’s connected to the… red thing… the red thing’s connected to my… wristwatch. Uh oh”).

I remember at some point my sister turning to my dad and saying, in the most cheerful voice I have ever heard, something like “See? That’s you! You’re Homer!” I also remember – or I think I remember – my dad’s eyes getting wider and wider as the show went on. Having been charged with the simple task of watching television with a man in a hospital, we had turned the visit into a complete fiasco. We soon decided to cut our (and his) losses by heading home, both my sister and I getting tear-filled hugs from dad and almost certainly trying not to say anything poignant or meaningful so as to pretend that we weren’t scared out of our minds for him.

Fortunately the surgery was a big success and Dad got not only the ten good years the doctors predicted for him but quite a few more – and at no time during any of those years did I try to cheer him up with an episode of The Simpsons. I may do dumb things, after all, but I don’t do the same dumb things over and over.