Reached by a Bloomberg reporter asking about his latest health scare, Apple CEO Steve Jobs finally snapped. "Why don't you guys leave me alone — why is this important?" It's an intriguing question.

The usual answers trotted out by business reporters is that Jobs is Apple's indispensable man, a product visionary who unites the company's creative talents to produce sublimely artistic gadgets like the Mac, iPod, and iPhone. And that as such, investors have a right to know if he's well enough to keep playing that role. Jobs has announced he's taking a six-month medical leave, but people wonder if he'll actually be well enough to return. Bloomberg's latest report — that medical experts think he might need a liver transplant — is certainly relevant to that question.

But there's always been something unsatisfying about that theory. There's something more visceral about the Apple-fascinated public's relationship to Jobs.

Here's a theory: He's become a father figure to us. Coldly withholding and distant most of the time, he shows up once a year — Macworld is Christmas for Apple geeks — to shower us with gifts. But we always believed he'd be there, and that if something serious happened, he'd tell us.

Anyone who's had an illness in the family knows how hard it is to talk about. Can Mom take the news? Do we want to trouble Sis with it? Who told whom when, and what does that mean? These are emotionally fraught issues.

Jobs's first letter about his health to the "Apple community" started out warmly — "I’ve decided to share something very personal with the Apple community so that we can all relax and enjoy the show tomorrow" — and then ended with a taunt — "So now I’ve said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this."

Were he anyone else, Jobs's assertion of a right to privacy would be the end of the matter. But what's private within a family? By erasing the boundaries between consumer and community, fan and family, Jobs has created a brand loyalty to Apple that has contributed to the improbable comeback he lead and the company's current good fortune. But Apple's $25 billion cash horde has come at a cost he didn't count on: The thought that Jobs owes the people whose lives he has touched with his gadgetry a debt that's not counted in dollars.