March 27, 2013. My Dad died yesterday. As I sat with him during these past months and especially during the last three weeks, I remembered so many special moments. Here are a few, in no particular order:
My Dad was a Methodist minister. One of my favorite times was at the end of services when I could go to join him as he greeted parishioners leaving the service. I was so proud of him in his clerical collar and black robe. He was very handsome with beautiful, black wavy hair, and he was so warm and friendly and caring with his parishioners as he spoke with them.
Bible stories were our bedtime reading when I was little. My favorite book was The Golden Book of the Bible. It was the pictures I loved best…dramatic and colorful. My Dad would read to me from The Golden Book or tell me stories in his own words. One day he gave me his pulpit Bible. I used to sit on the screened front porch of our Medford, Massachusetts parsonage and read through the pages. I still have that pulpit Bible here on my shelves, along with the hundreds of other books about religion and the many Bibles that I accumulated during my own studies, inspired by my Dad and these moments we shared.
My Dad was from Arkansas, and he was proud of the skills he learned in the Boy Scouts. He loved to camp, and we camped a lot as I was growing up. Some of my favorite pictures are from a summer camping trip in the Adirondack Mountains. We set up and slept in those old, heavy canvas tents. We dug trenches around the tents and cooked over open fires or Coleman stoves. We hiked and fished. Fishing was probably my favorite time on these trips because I would often go out alone with him. We would sit together for many hours in a rowboat on an open lake or in reeds closer to shore. I was always filled with the beauty of these quiet moments alone with him and am still filled with joy when I think about these moments today.
My Dad was one of the most kind and humble people I have ever known. One of his favorite biblical verses was from Micah: “What does The Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d…”
Something happened during one of my Dad’s visits to my West Rogers Park home that was forever after the quintessential image of my Dad for me: I had two beagles, Bree and Samantha. Samantha liked to sit in the wing chair in my living room sometimes. While my Dad was visiting, he sat down in that chair at one point and opened a book and started to read. Samantha came over and sat quietly on the floor in front of him, looking at him. After a couple of minutes, he glanced up and saw Samantha. He barely hesitated before he said, “Oh, excuse me, Samantha. Did I take your chair?” He moved to the couch, and Samantha jumped up onto the chair. He was a kind and humble man, and he loved animals.
Three years ago after I lost my beloved beagles, I got a new little Havanese puppy, Rafi. When I visited my Dad the week before I got my puppy, I told him I was getting Rafi and that I would bring him to visit the next week. I called my Dad on the way to visit him the next week to remind him I was coming. Although he was already well into his dementia and his memories were very attenuated and unreliable — and I’m not certain he even remembered that I was coming — when I said I was bringing “a friend,” he said, “Oh, your puppy!” He remembered, and Rafi and my Dad formed a close bond over the next three and a half years of weekly visits. Rafi always got excited when I got home from the Cafe early and got his travel bag out . . . and my Dad always got a great big smile when he saw Rafi coming. When my Dad entered into his last weeks, Rafi recognized the change and became very subdued. Since my Dad was then bedridden, Rafi took to climbing out of his bag to curl up by my Dad’s feet. The night before my Dad died, Rafi was in just that spot, and I took a picture.
Along with his humility, my Dad had a pretty strong stubborn streak. My brother can make us all laugh until we cry telling stories about where that stubborn streak sometimes took him (and us). Rafting trips without a guide that resulted in upended rafts, sailing with an insistence on using nautical language that no one understood that resulted in family members landing in the “drink” when the boom swung around . . . or stalls in the middle of the lake. Losing a fully loaded trailer along the road, insisting that it was indeed still attached to the car as the other occupants of the car watched it drift backward while the car continued to charge forward.
I think my favorite memory along these lines, though, is from the time he took me water skiing on Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma. My sisters and brother were in the (borrowed) motorboat with him, and I was behind the boat on skiis. My Dad was fully dressed in a suit, and his pockets were filled with his pipe and tobacco pouches and pipe paraphernalia. At one point, the rope got tangled in the motor, and while I dog paddled, he leaned over to untangle the rope. Unfortunately he leaned too far, and whoops . . . tumbled right into the water. His jacket, still on, floated up around him, and the pipe and tobacco and other odds and ends floated away from him across the water. My brother and sister and I were trying to remember if that was the same trip when he was straddling between the boat and the pier while my mom was guiding the boat gently out into the lake — and the keys dropped into the water. What do they call those splits? Chinese?
My Dad was brilliant, an academic, and he had a varied and fascinating career. He was Arkansas state typing champion, he was a Naval Academy tumbler, he completed a degree in engineering and was a champion — if unorthodox — do-it-yourselfer in our home. He could build cabinetry, handle plumbing and electrical work and paper walls. He was incredible with math and science, as are my two sons, and he spent many frustrating hours with me when I was in high school. I missed that gene.
My Dad completed his seminary training at Boston University and his doctorate at Northwestern University, a doctorate that started out in political science, passed through Garrett Evangelical and ended up in education. He was for many years the Midwest Director for a Carnegie Foundation sponsored organization called the Church Peace Union, later renamed The Council on Religion and International Affairs (CRIA). When I was in junior high and high school I attended many seminars with him on ethics and foreign policy that featured high level government officials and clergy of all faiths. I have a picture of him at a dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt.
At a later time, his Evanston offices were bombed by members of the John Birch Society, and he was verbally attacked by leftists when he organized seminars. I well remember an occasion when I was in college in the early 70s when we had a party in our home during an Israeli-Arab seminar he had arranged at Northwestern University. In the Middle East, Arabs and Israelis were at war, but in our home, they enjoyed drinks and hors d’oeuvres. My mom recalls sitting next to King Hussein at a dinner hosted at the University during the same conference. We also had the Thai crown prince for drinks and hors d’oeuvres one summer in our backyard . . . and I believe in the same summer, we hosted the Northwestern University cherubs. I can’t quite remember how or why that happened, but it was fun.
One of my most proud moments came when I was working on my own doctorate and gave an academic presentation to the Catholic Student Union at the University of Illinois. My Dad happened to be in town. He read my presentation beforehand and made a few helpful suggestions. He didn’t say so then, but he confided later that he had doubts whether I would be able to carry it off because it was somewhat esoteric, complex material, and I was no public speaker. After the presentation, which was well-received and was the one and only time he ever heard me teach or speak, he told me how proud he was of me, and I thought I would burst!
After my Dad completed his doctorate and moved on from CRIA, he was assistant superintendent at New Trier High School for a time during the late 60s, a time when schools were volatile places to be. He always seemed to find those hot spots, as he did in the last position he held during his career as the Director of the Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation in Window Rock, Arizona. Newspaper reports from Arizona at that time indicate a great deal of political turmoil in the Navajo nation. Nonetheless, he succeeded in getting a Community Hall built for the Navajos, for which he was honored at a sing. Tomorrow I will hang the plaque commemorating that event on the wall in my Cafe.
My Dad was not a cold academic. He was a very emotional man. One of my most powerful memories is when I was in high school, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. We left school early, and I walked to downtown Evanston to catch a bus home as I usually did. On this occasion, I was crying. I bumped into my Dad coming down the street, openly weeping. We hugged and walked the two miles home together.
My Dad’s emotional nature — and impulsivity — could and did cause considerable difficulty in his life . . . and considerable difficulty in ours, even while these characteristics also made him very loveable. Invariably he would announce that we were leaving for Fort Smith, Arkansas (from Evanston, Illinois) in one hour, and we should pack. This never happened during spring break, always before or after. He sometimes lived his life that way, so stability wasn’t always the most prominent feature of the way we grew up.
My Dad followed his pastoral impulses and heartfelt emotions even when he was in the nursing home suffering from and living with others who were suffering from dementia. One day when I came, an agitated woman was roaming the halls crying out repeatedly, “Where am I? Where am I going? I don’t know where I am going!” She was inconsolable, and no one was able to calm her. My Dad stopped and put his hand on her arm, looked right into her eyes and said, “I don’t know where we’re going either, but I know they will tell us soon. Don’t worry — you will be ok.” And she was.
He was always enthusiastic about wherever he was and would take us around to examine every detail as if he were a tour guide. In his enthusiasm, he always impressed upon us the amazing nature of being alive and being human . . . whether by taking us out in the middle of the night to witness the flight of Sputnick overhead or the northern lights . . . or visiting one of the early McDonald’s. Everything was a remarkable achievement, an extraodinary sight or an amazing discovery, no matter how high or how lowly, and everything was worth exploring, experiencing and commenting on.
One of the most wonderful experiences I had with my Dad was yesterday, while my brother and sister and I sat with his body after he died. So many people from the nursing home stopped in or called to tell us how much they loved my Dad, how he was so kind and never complained and how much they enjoyed caring for him.
These last weeks my Dad was in a very Zen space. He was neither rushing toward death nor struggling to remain in life. He was exactly where he was and was content there. I imagine that now that he has moved on to his next destination, he is eagerly exploring and preparing to give the rest of us an enthusiastic tour.
I loved my Dad so much, and I will miss him terribly. Although I have had some pretty difficult patches in my own life, the shimmering, beautiful, joyful moments always predominate — and always will — because of the ways my Dad taught me to see.
When I converted to Judaism many years ago, my Dad said to me that he probably would have made a better Jew than a Christian. These words from the Jewish memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim, feel so right for me to say for him now: yitzror bitzror hachayim et nishmato, “May his soul be bound up in the bundle of life.” Dad, you lived fully, and you lived well, and I know you will continue to live. I will always be grateful that I was blessed with “the best Dad in the world.”