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.