September 16, 2009 is the 10 year anniversary of my father’s death. He did not live to see the 21st century; he did not know that the twin towers would be attacked and that they would fall. He would not have necessarily welcomed the digital age. I guess there are many things that each of us will never know.
If you asked my father what he did, he liked to say that he taught college. He was not a professor, he was, Don, a teacher. Not always perfect, but always learning, always embracing his path and encouraging me to skip along mine. I think no more so than, with fearlessness and pure heart, he faced his own death. “Are you afraid,” I asked. “No,” he said, “just curious.”
I was with him 2 hours before he actually died. They tell you to say goodbye, to say that it’s okay to die and that you’ll be okay when they pass. All these things to make it easier for the person to “let go.” Cancer, being the aggressive bastard that it is, wasn’t likely going to be influenced by what I said or didn’t say, but I said everything anyway.
Fourteen months earlier, I had arrived at his hospital bed. “Have I given you enough?” he asked.
Many words have been written and spoken about my father. At the funeral, students I didn’t know approached me: “You were the apple of his eye,” they said. And six months later, students running the ticket booth at the local movie theater looked at me strangely, “We know who you are, and we loved your father.”
There was one piece (Craig Carlson Eulogy) written about him that I have always especially loved. Penned by Craig Carlson, poet, teacher and long-time colleague of my father’s, the essay had story, memory, surprise, reveal. It was an excavation of history, with them sitting in the backyard of the old house with the bees. As with any good story, if perfectly captures who my father was and it revealed extra words and thoughts he had, which, like the fragments of ancient pottery, are precious beyond explanation.
A few years later Craig drowned, and there was a story told about it. He and his teenage son had been swimming, maybe out a little too far and then the current had taken them out further. They knew they were in trouble. Craig was tired, and told his son to swim back without him. His son didn’t want to leave him. “Get help,” said Craig. And so the son swam back and was saved.
Not, save yourself. Not, just go on without me. Get help. A task. A reason to survive. A charge to save the life of someone else. It’s Muhammad Ali winning Rumble in the Jungle–fighting not just for himself but for his community. Something greater than oneself.
For 10 years I have missed my father, but I have cherished the legacy he left behind and I am deeply grateful to Craig, a poet to the end, for his words.
Check out my father’s book: Teaching with your Mouth Shut.
Also, his as of yet unpublished, Out of the cave; steps to essay writing.