ohio sunrise

Lessons from Dave

21 February 2014

My dad lived a quiet life and died a short, quiet death. My father-in-law Dave lived a bright, lively life, and when he died after long years of decline, hundreds of people came to remember the good doctor that had befriended them, healed them, gave them comfort, made them laugh.

Everyone has their personal reality-distortion lens, but Dave’s was powerful enough to bend reality for a whole community of people. The world of Dave glowed; people were more interesting, stories were funnier, no one ever wanted to say goodbye.

Alzheimer’s disease brought Dave the longest of final farewells, but even though we had many years to adjust to an ever-dimmer world as he faded, it’s still a painful shock to find the light gone at last.

I learned a lot from Dave.

Laugh it out

Dave was serious about his work as a doctor and surgeon, but he loved opportunities to lighten the burdens of life with humor. Nothing was off limits in Dave’s pursuit of a good laugh, and if you were shocked, embarrassed or exasperated, it was all the funnier. Smart and irreverent, Dave used humor to teach people not to take life too seriously, a lesson he taught me early on.

I was a recent college grad, just getting acquainted with Dave and Patti, warm and friendly parents of the nice Midwestern guy I’d started dating in New York City. To Patti, I was a curiously unfamiliar choice by her youngest son: Chinese, Californian, urbanite, definitely not Catholic. Dave’s concerns were different.

On one of my early visits to Ohio, I took to making chili for dinner. Halfway through, I remembered I was going to add a can of corn, but I’d forgotten to buy it. Dave was on his way back from the hospital and offered to pick some up.

Dave and Patti had a traditional marriage, and I knew that Dave rarely if ever went to the grocery store. “Okay Dave,” I warned him on the phone, “there are a million varieties of corn at the store – yellow, white, low salt, no salt, Mexican-flavored, etc. This is what I need.” I gave him specifics, thinking this would be most efficient.

I was working at the stove when Dave walked into the kitchen and casually set a can down. “Thanks Dave,” I said, turning around to see on the counter a beat-up, generic can with two plainly printed words on the peeling, stark white label: “CREAMED CORN.” I shook my head and began, “Dave, I specifically told you…” before catching myself. “No problem Dave, I’ll rinse it off, it’ll be fine.”

I got out a colander and can opener and headed for the sink. Hearing Patti and my then-boyfriend breaking into surprised laughter, I turned around to find that Dave, with a sly Cheshire-cat grin, had pulled out from behind his back the exact brand and type of corn I’d asked him for. I threw down the colander and laughed. And probably then Dave knew we were going to get along just fine.

He was an imp, that man.

impish dave

Revel in fun

Dave was the only adult who could have convinced my dad to take a turn down the giant inflatable slide at their grandson’s birthday party. The two clambered up the bouncy stairs and slid down together, limbs flailing. With a final bounce off the slide, Dave said to my dad, “Wasn’t that fun, Henry? Didn’t it make you feel like a kid?” My dad laughed, straightening out his sweatshirt. “It made me feel like a fool!” he said. But he was smiling.

Dave never let go of the joys of youth. He took every opportunity to get outside and run, playing in softball and flag football leagues into his 60s with his sons, medical residents and their friends. After that, he continued to race in the yard with his many grandkids, and when they went home, he would run down the driveway as they drove away, kids marveling at crazy fast grandpa with flying hair.

The power of stories

The researchers who found that women speak three times as many words a day as men clearly never encountered Dave or his sons, who easily out-talk any women I know. I imagine they must be descended from the tradition of Irish storytellers, keepers of oral history, so naturally do they think and speak in story form.

Storytelling is not the most efficient means of conveying information, nor may it be the most accurate. But I have to admit it is darned entertaining.

Dave’s history lives on in tales, like the one about his kindergarten delinquency (his mom told the nuns, “It’s my job to get him to school. It’s your job to keep him there.”) or the point at which he started taking academics as seriously as athletics (when Dave’s dad, a county judge, suggested he drop school to work on the county road crew, because his grades weren’t going to get him a job beyond manual labor).

No one spotted a joke faster than Dave. Once when he needed a pit stop during a trip with his son, he mentioned that it was time for his “daily constitutional.” Some time later, my husband realized he’d forgotten to find his dad a bathroom and apologized, saying, “Sorry dad, I forgot about your daily constitutional.” “Daily constitutional!” Dave quipped. “I’m about to make a declaration in de pants!”

The grandkids will always hear how smart, fun and energetic their grandpa was. But it’s through stories that his true spirit will be remembered.

Lift people up

Dave loved everybody, got along with everybody, related to everybody. He never said no to a patient, or a friend of a patient, or a patient’s great-uncle’s second wife’s stepson. He had time for everyone and would always find a way to help.

Dave kept his Irish gift of gab to the end, long after most Alzheimer’s sufferers would have lost their words entirely. Even in his illness he treated strangers and loved ones alike with generosity and kindness. One nurse at his nursing facility said with heartfelt gratitude that Dave was the only person who had ever said she was beautiful.

He didn’t always know his grandchildren, or even at the very end, his children, but Dave’s loving, impish instincts were there to the end. Every “I love you, Dad” or “I love you, Grandpa” was countered with “I love you more.”

Comfort in what I don’t know

I’ve buried two dads in two years, and though the passage has made me feel uncomfortably closer to my own mortality, it has also made me less afraid of it. As a child I was convinced of – and terrified by – the certainty of death as an end.

But as an adult I no longer have the egotism to believe that what I can see is all there is to know. In the end, death was a welcome escape for Dave, and for my dad, from the frail bodies that lost their battles with disease. Their bodies are in the ground, but my heart and mind tell me their spirits are eternal.

There’s a great little book, Flatland, written by English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott in 1880, that to me demonstrates definitively the limitations of our physical knowledge. In the book, Abbott imagines how a three dimensional figure would appear to residents of a flat, two-dimensional world.

Picture how a ball would look as it passes downward through piece of paper. It would start a dot when the ball first touches the paper, expanding to an ever-larger circle as the ball moves down. Once the ball’s middle passes through the paper, the circle on paper would start shrinking until the ball, having passed through the paper, is back to being a dot and then disappears entirely.

If you lived as a flat shape in the two-dimensional paper world, there would be no explanation for a vision like that. And yet, if you had the expanded vision to see the broader three-dimensional world, the explanation would be plainly obvious.

We can only see what our limited vision allows, and we can explain only what our language permits. Things happen in this world that defy comprehension. But that does not mean a logical explanation does not exist.

In a fascinating TEDTalk, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene reveals that instead of slowing down, the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating. At some point, the night skies from Earth will be starless, and we will appear alone in the universe.

Greene wonders whether, in the absence of physical evidence, we will believe then that stars ever existed at all. Or they may seem as mythical as unicorns.

For now, I look at the stars and imagine the brilliant light of Dave, far off but still twinkling strong, and my dad, bright and sure. The stars I can see with my eyes, but the true lights are the ones I hold in my heart and memory.


At Dave’s funeral, the family played “The Old Man”, a song that always reminded Dave of his own dad. If you are in need of a good cry – and especially if you are Irish or Scottish – this song will deliver.

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