Eulogy

My father-in-law wore his nickname without irony. His was the kind of nickname that would be tough to bear on the playground, but despite being a teacher for decades, any juvenile thoughts wouldn’t have crossed his mind. I don’t think he knew how to be insulted.

And while he may not have been easy to insult, he did have pride, and as he became more and more disabled by chronic illness, his frustration grew. His attitude and that of his wife was remarkable. Sure, he complained about being dependent on others, but when he needed to start dialysis, he took it in stride. When he became more and more physically unable, his intellectual life continued to flourish. He continued to be a film and theater maven, and read plays for a local theater group.

But certain things he just could not bear. When he became incontinent, when he could no longer lift a book or turn its pages, he began to lose hope. There are certainly some people who can go on living with dignity and vivacity, despite being locked in an uncooperative body, but Dick wasn’t one of them. The insult to his dignity was too much, and being deprived of his intellectual pursuits by weakness and delirium was too much. He was miserable, although he still had a smile for my daughter. He was afraid—afraid of being alone while unable to do for himself. He couldn’t even push a call button for a nurse.

But there was some hope. Despite his poor health, surgeons tried to decompress his spinal cord, and he was set to go to rehab, but recovery, such as it was, was slow, and medical complications kept him away from physical therapy.

This was a man who worked hard, and whose intellectual curiosity took him all over the globe, before diabetes and vascular disease robbed him of his ability to travel widely. Early in his life, when his country called him to duty, the Army made an uncharacteristically wise decision and assigned him to military intelligence. He seemed much less conflicted about his service than many others—while being a dedicated liberal, and strongly anti-war, he served his country proudly, although I think he was genuinely puzzled as to how such a bizarre institution as the U.S. Army could function without recourse to logical thought.

Dick taught high school most of his life, including history, social studies, and drama. He was proud of his students, and of his work with them. He loved to brag when a student “made it”—Sanjay Gupta, my fellow physician, was a former student, as was one of my medical residents. His students said wonderful things about him, and I presume this is because he was visibly fascinated by history and politics, and loved to share his knowledge and thoughts.

He and his wife adopted two children in the late sixties, when adoption wasn’t quite the common practice it is today. I was lucky enough to marry one of them.

Last night, when the hospital called to say he was in cardiac arrest, we rushed to his bedside. It was clear he never had a chance—whatever did him in happened quickly and efficiently. Earlier in the day, my wife was spending time with him, listening to his confused moans, and when she got up to say goodbye, he said, “you have a beautiful smile. Where did you get such a beautiful smile?”

Dick, she got her smile from you, her passion from you. How could you even wonder?

_________________

Over the last few years, as he became sicker, he was always cold. He wore a sweater even in the heat of the Midwestern summer. I’m reminded of nothing so much as the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, where a man, stranded in the Arctic cold, enjoins his friend to cremate him, no matter how impossible the task. And while our family’s cultural tradition calls for burial, I can’t help but think of Sam McGee, dead for days in the Arctic cold, finally delivered to warmth by his friend:

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm–
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

Dick, when I escorted you to the hospital morgue, you looked so small. I can’t believe that hours earlier, you were such a tall, imposing figure. But on this ice-glazed December morning you looked peaceful and warm, and for that, you and I are both grateful.

Comments

  1. #1 khan
    December 26, 2008

    That was beautiful.

    You have my sympathy.

  2. #2 Dianne
    December 26, 2008

    I’m very sorry for your and your family’s loss.

  3. #3 Katy
    December 26, 2008

    Lovely eulogy, I am sorry for your loss.

    I was amazed to see the words from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” – a story my stepfather used to read to us every Christmas – it never occurred to me that anyone else knew the poem. Haven’t heard it in years. I think when we go visit him in a few days I’ll request a reading of it for my kids.

    Again, my sympathy for your loss of a wonderful man.

  4. #4 Joe
    December 26, 2008

    Wonderful eulogy. Condolences.

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    December 26, 2008

    What khan said, really. I hope I’ll be able to write with such grace and clarity when I’m in mourning.

    Take care of yourself and your family.

  6. #6 ehoffman
    December 26, 2008

    Very sorry for this great loss – will be thinking of you and your family.

  7. #7 palmom
    December 26, 2008

    What a beautiful tribute. Just right

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    December 26, 2008

    I’m so sorry to hear this. My sympathies to you all.

    The best eulogies tell us not only what friends and loved ones have lost by someone’s death, but also what the rest of us have lost by never having had a chance to know them. This is one of those.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 26, 2008

    Condolences to you and your family, Pal.

  10. #10 Martin
    December 26, 2008

    Your writing stands out from other bloggers because of the ability you have to touch your readers with tales from your life. Once again I find myself moved by your words. I’m sorry for your loss.

  11. #11 Lauren
    December 26, 2008

    This brought tears to my eyes. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your father-in-law. My thoughts are with your family.

  12. #12 bob koepp
    December 26, 2008

    You and yours have my sincere sympathy. Reflect on how full was the life that now is ended. When my father died a few years back, I found real comfort knowing that, judged by his own standards, Dad had what he would have called “a good run.”

  13. #13 Liz Ditz
    December 26, 2008

    My condolences, Pal, to you and your wife and your daughter.

    Many works by Robert Service were a staple of my childhood.

    We read Kipling’s If at my dad’s memorial service

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
    But make allowance for their doubting too,
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
    If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breath a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
    If all men count with you, but none too much,
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

    –Rudyard Kipling

  14. #14 Abel Pharmboy
    December 26, 2008

    Pal, my heart goes out to you, Mrs Pal, the families, and especially the grandkids.

    You are a terrific writer and a magnificent human being. I trust that Dick is proud of his legacy, both in you and the others you describe.

  15. #15 Sara Beth
    December 26, 2008

    tears.

  16. #16 Rochelle
    December 27, 2008

    Pal,

    The loss of dick is so sad, what you wrote was beautiful. May you all find the comfort in knowing he was loved by so many. That was beautiful what you wrote about your father in law. Condolences to the families.

  17. #17 Kristi E.
    December 27, 2008

    What a beautiful eulogy. He sounds like a lovely man. The loss of my father is still fresh in my mind in this holiday season, and my heart goes out to your wife and her family.

  18. #18 ...tom...
    December 27, 2008

    Dick, she got her smile from you, her passion from you. How could you even wonder?

    Beautiful thought, especially in mind of the way Dick came to nurture her and to mold that ‘beautiful smile’.

    Very nicely said.

    …tom…
    .

  19. #19 moneduloides
    December 27, 2008

    I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Pal.

  20. #20 The Blind Watchmaker
    December 27, 2008

    I’m very sorry to hear about your loss.
    Please pass my condolences on to Mrs. Pal.

  21. #21 D. C. Sessions
    December 27, 2008

    Hamakom yinachem etchem im kol aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.

  22. #22 mezzobuff
    December 27, 2008

    What beautiful writing for a man I now wish I had known… condolences.

  23. #23 LanceR, JSG
    December 27, 2008

    Oh, man. That sucks. My wife lost her grandmother right after Christmas a few years back. It makes the holiday a little bittersweet for several years.

    My heart goes out to you and yours. Please pass on my and my family’s best wishes.

  24. #24 The Perky Skeptic
    December 27, 2008

    What an extraordinary person he was! This was so touching. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  25. #25 Isis the Scientist
    December 28, 2008

    Pal, this is beautiful. Reading this made me think of my mother. We didn’t know how sick she was until she got close to the time of her death. Then we watched her become like a shell of herself. I didn’t see her look peaceful again until I pulled her ET tube out. It may sound strange, but for a few moments she looked peaceful as though it were time for her to stop fighting and rest.

    Now I’m all choked up. Pal, my thoughts and best wishes are with your family and especially with your little one.

  26. #26 CyberLizard
    December 28, 2008

    This was beautiful. I am fortunate to have not lost any of my immediate family yet. When I do I hope that I am able to express my love and admiration for them half as well as you have.

  27. #27 Radioactive afikomen
    December 28, 2008

    That was very moving, Pal.

    I’m sorry for your loss.

  28. #28 CanadianChick
    December 28, 2008

    that was beautiful. I am so sorry for your loss, and for your wife’s.

  29. #29 Denice Walter
    December 29, 2008

    Pal,I’m so sorry of hear of your loss.My condolences to your wife, daughter, and the rest of the family.(A few years ago we lost my cousin at this time of year:it has colored the season for all of us since.)

  30. #30 SES
    December 29, 2008

    Sorry to hear about your loss. My condolences to you and your family.

  31. #31 Dr Benway
    January 3, 2009

    All the little monkeys fear death. All want to share moments of kindness when death is near. Kindness is clearly more precious than other monkey toys. Strange there is so much strife and struggle in this world.

  32. #32 Candid Engineer
    January 6, 2009

    What a beautiful way to remember your father-in-law. I’m sitting here crying. It was lovely.

    My sincerest condolences to you, your wife, and your family.

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