During his long illness, my father planned his memorial service. He chose his favorite hymns, "Lord of the Dance", "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "Amazing Grace". He determined that he wished to have no eulogies,nor yet a graveside service with its tent and chairs and last goodbyes. He wanted only a simple message by the pastor. He determined that he did not wish a "visitation", that southern tradition in which the entire community visits the funeral home in the evening(s) before a funeral,to see the body and comfort the family. He determined that he also did not want a huge reception afterward, where folks bring fried chicken, roasted pork and casseroles to a church basement. He just wanted people to gather at the church, have a service, remember him, greet the family in the church foyer, and then head off home. In lieu of flowers, he asked that folks donate to the church or hospice.
We followed his wishes for the service nearly to the letter. The only flowers were a set sent by his children and grandchildren.The only other adornment of the altar was a folded United States flag, a reminder of his service in the United States Air Force. In the air force, my father had performed the same role he filled most of his professional life--he was a family practice doctor to families.
The minister who spoke at the service had known my family for decades. His first job as a United Methodist minister in the 1970's was at the little town in which my father's private practice first bloomed. He told a story of being a new minister in the little town of Gurdon just when my father was transitioning his practice from there.
He told of walking in the small hospital hallway when my father called out "Preacher, come here!". He went in and found my father holding an infant while a nurse stood nearby. "Hold this.", my father said. The young preacher, fresh from seminary, held the rather vocal baby. Then my father took a rectal thermometer and demonstrated to the nurse how to take the baby's temperature. Contrary to the ministers expectation, the administration of the rectal thermometer instantly calmed the little child. My father then set about soothing the nerves of the child's parents. The minister tied this and some other stories up neatly with how he learned from my father how sometimes it's okay to be precise, to insist upon things being done correctly, and to keep calm.
The preacher's sermon featured lots of other kind words about my dad. He talked about my dad's intelligence and broad range of interests. He expressed well a key thing to know about my father--that being a doctor and helping people in that way was at the core of who he was.
Yet for all the minister's kindness, insight and pleasing and articulate words, there were things the preacher could not or would not cover. I thought to myself of some of those things. My father was a fighter, who fought through medical school despite an imperfect educational foundation and color blindness so severe it adversely impacted his medical school career. He fought through ten years of practice in a two doctor rural town in which he was perpetually on call and worked around the clock.
He fought the demons we all fight, and perhaps the boxing was a bit more heated than in some lives. He tackled challenges, even if they exhausted him. Sometimes, he made poor choices, often also driven by exhaustion. A few of his choices made his life more difficult than it might have been otherwise. My father was a man who kept his business promises and had little patience with procrastination. He had a temper, and a sense of humor, and a hard side, and a soft side, as do we all, in varying elements. He liked to study math, convinced that weak math preparation had caused him to accomplish less than he otherwise would have done.
My father was an astute investor, a man who paid his debts early, a generous man who loved family holidays, and a firm believer in learning new things every day. He loved Arkansas timberland and antique cars. He was a man with a dozen hobbies, among which he would alternate. When I was a boy, we went to Arkansas' state park which features a diamond mine. We all walked the open fields, among quartz, calcite, jasper, amethyst and agates. I found it restful.
My father found a diamond that first visit--a little yellow one, pretty close to gem grade. We went back dozens more times, such that a day at the diamond mine remains for me a wonderful way to found reconnect with my childhood. I never found a diamond. I found lots of semi-precious stones over the years, none of economic interest. But I found and find the long, pointless walk on a field containing a volcano cone a wonderful way to think and daydream.
My father, for his part, figured out late in life how to find alluvial diamonds, diamonds in rivers. He even found a secret place in which to search fruitfully for alluvial diamonds. He gathered information about igneous intrusions into what was formerly believed to be non-igneous land. No matter how many facts and stories the minister had, and no matter how many favorite hymns we sang, we could not scratch the surface of my father. Lots of him was submerged.
I think of my father as a fellow who overcame adversity. I remember the time a tractor rolled down a hill and nearly killed him. I remember the time when he, at age 78, was carried along for miles after he fell into the river. A subdural hematoma almost killed him when he was about my age.
My father loved home, hated restaurants, and enjoyed Sousa marches. He wrote a long autobiographical book to let his family know a bit more of who he was. This is part of a long tradition in my family, which has a long oral and written history of relatives. My father left a widow (my mother died years ago), my brother, my sister, two step-children and me.
I am hard-wired for belief rather than for skepticism, but even if Heaven were only memory, my father will never fade from mine.
Tonight my wife and I traveled to downtown Dallas to attend a Creole Christmas concert by New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I had last seen them 37 years ago, in the tiny building called Preservation Hall. A time came when the wonderful pianist did one of those intense medley flourishes of New Orleans jazz and Christmas classics. When the lights went down to green and then blue, he segued into "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and other carols. I found myself in gentle tears. My father and my mother loved Christmas. I cried for the departed ghosts of Christmas Past.
My father left his affairs in well-planned order, to ease the burden for his wife and his children. He died in the home he restored over 38 years, a home he declined to leave for
hospital care. My sister stayed with him for weeks so that he had a family member rather a stranger helping him each day. He died in his sleep, after this condition and that condition seemingly conspired together to bring matters to an end. The passing of his strength seemed to sharpen his sense of humour. My brother and I each saw him not long before his death, and we all got to say our goodbyes. We had a fitting experience of death.
I am very like my father in some ways, and very unlike him in others. When I go to my home town, most people know who I am merely by looking at me, because I look like a younger version of my father. But our lives differ in material ways,and our choices in life were dissimilar. We had an easy rapport, though we are not always of the same mind.
I was touched by relatives who drove hundreds of miles to my father's funeral. I was touched by the two hundred folks who showed up for the memorial,and by folks who contacted me to say "he was my doctor" or even "he delivered me". My brother, my sister, his wife and I will all miss my father very much.
When next I have a chance, I plan to walk an old plowed field in an ancient volcano where rare gems are sometimes found, and think of my father.