I haven’t written here lately. Over the past several weeks I’ve been preoccupied, thinking about a guy who has been fighting a serious health condition; as a result, I’ve traveled to visit him, spent time with his family and generally worried about his prognosis. Finally, the end which is inevitable for each of us closed in and he perished last week. So I traveled once again, this time to attend his funeral and offer my final good-byes. More than that, I was able to put his life into a perspective that should teach any one of us a great deal.
He never had it easy. For some people, breaks always seem to fall either a step ahead or a step behind, and in his case he often seemed out of step. While he was raised in the relative affluence of the middle-class, his life seemed to present more than the usual number of travails. He was a quiet, introspective fellow, and not very social. He would be far more comfortable in the loneliness of the north woods than with a group of friends, a fact which by itself limited the number of close acquaintances in his life. As a young man he was a very average student, despite great discipline for study, and he even dropped out of college for a short time, so overwhelmed was he with the rigors and anxieties of university life. During these years he experienced his first bouts of depression, a disabling affliction that would subsequently haunt him at every stage of his life. He faced the certainty of being drafted into the Viet Nam war by the U.S. Army after college, a stark prospect that forced enlistment as a preferable alternative. Whatever horrors he faced in those years, he rarely spoke of them, either from obedience to confidentiality or an aversion to his remembering. His subsequent careers moved in fits and starts, as his aspirations for pursuing advanced education were always vexed by the need to create an income sufficient to meet the needs of a growing family. There were times when he sold his own blood plasma for the additional income that it could provide. One of his adult sons was struck and nearly killed by a drunk driver, creating a need to provide special and long-term care at the very moment of expected parental independence. And the final hit was the most egregious: his love for the outdoors and running shirtless in the summer sun translated into a fight with skin cancer. While odds of recovery from topical treatments are generally good, his were not and he underwent surgeries. While odds of recovery with surgery are generally good, his were not and the cancer metastasized in more than twenty sites in his body. And while the odds of recovery with chemotherapy can be generally good, his were not and within ten weeks’ time he was transformed from health to death. To me, it seemed as though he just never caught a break.
But at his funeral last week, the life story told by those who knew him best were quite different from the perspective that I had. His work colleagues and neighbors spoke of one who always presented a calming air of acceptance, even in the midst of crises. Each remembrance that was offered included recollections of his patience, kindness and generosity for others, in spite of his own needs. I heard reflections about his commitment to learning, to accessing new ideas as a means of personal growth and spiritual stewardship. I came to know about the people he touched through his personal generosity, often at times in his life when, by most measures, he could not afford such largesse. I learned about his passion for teaching others, his gift of being able to make complex issues more simple. And I witnessed for myself the deep love and high regard of his wife and children for a husband and dad who demonstrated only love and patience for his family during the whole of their lives together; each expressed their own stories of a man who not only taught high virtues, but who lived them, as well. Ironically, it was these commonplace traits which made for the uncommon man.
No, the endowment under review last week was not that of a powerful or controlling master. It did not even reference the unlucky circumstances of a sometimes troubled life. The legacy instead described the caring and loving life of a “peasant,” a humble and gentle man who refused to give in to either the struggles of a stressful life or the temptations of an alluring life. In the process, he remained true to the values of faithful stewardship and kindness of character.
In the end, no one recalled the marginal grades of high school. There were no reminiscences about crippling depression or serving in an unwanted war or aspirations that were never achieved. What mattered at the close was that my brother, Skip, was a common man who loved his family, treasured the gifts that he had instead of belaboring those he did not have, and who cared about others generously. He taught, he fought to learn and sought to give. He did so quietly and with deliberation. It’s a legacy that has been wonderful to receive, and that is required for each of us to give in turn….