When my father died in 1993, the medical school where he taught held a memorial. The event came well after the funeral, after I’d traveled home to resume my job and life. My mother sent me a recording of his colleagues’ remarks.
At the time, I listened to it in pieces. It was like trying to keep my hand on an electric fence, and not enough time had passed. But I listened to the tape later when I found it in a drawer.
As you might expect, his colleagues painted a portrait of a great doctor and a great man—no one at any memorial ever says, “Then again, he could be a real bastard.”
One speaker seemed to describe my father particularly well, however. He called him, “An even-tempered man who never lost his cool, who never made an enemy.” “Even when he tried to be mean,” he said, “he couldn’t manage it.” On the tape, this remark raises a laugh from the audience, and I still hear a private joke lurking, my dad’s attempt to be unkind misfiring in some comic way.
Granted, the people at the memorial did not know him the way I did. Though my father was generally calm and genial, I saw his temper a few times. He wasn’t mad at all often, but on those rare occasions he was, he was mad in both senses of the word.
I also knew his bad habits. Men of my father’s generation could engage in considerable self-destruction and still be considered “in bounds.” My father waged the same battles with nicotine and alcohol so many of his peers seemed to face. He eventually died of lung cancer.
But his colleague was right. My father wasn’t mean—he couldn’t be—and, though I know I’m biased, I could not imagine his having an enemy, an adversary, even a detractor.
Though my relationship with my father was complicated, the recording reminded me how much I’d like to be like him…and how short I seem to fall sometimes. He was a painter, and I’d satisfy for half his talent. He was witty. He could be quiet all evening then ambush you with his sneaky sense of humor. And whatever his troubles—and he had plenty—he was strong and kept them to himself.
At the memorial, my father’s colleagues talked about his courage facing cancer, how he never complained about his personal problems and insisted on, “Not being spared his duties.”
I’m not sure it’s healthy to keep your troubles hidden—I’m sure it wasn’t healthy for him—so I can forgive myself for complaining about my bad days, my challenging job, and the sometimes frustrating complications that are supposed to make life interesting but often make it hell. My wife, who has more than fulfilled the “sickness and health” clause in our contract, might say I could complain a little less, but falling short in that area doesn’t bother me… much.
What does is what my father was—and what I’m not and would like to be—a man whose integrity was above reproach.
I don’t think I have many enemies, but I’m sure there are people who have little respect for me. While I don’t agree with their assessment—how could I?—I want to be my father’s son, to bear up under their indifference, to be worthy of their respect even if they cannot grant it.
My sister once told me “the person of whom no ill can be spoken” is a fantasy. Everyone has detractors, she says, if you didn’t create a critic or two, you must stand for nothing, be hiding something, or be dead. She may be right, but a deep stubborn streak wants to put her thinking to the test. I like to believe we can disagree with people we nonetheless respect and can even admire those people. My father seems to have achieved it.
In any case, that’s my aspiration, my inspiration. I’m not after certainty—too many people are sure they are right—I just want to feel confident I’ve done the best I can. After listening and considering every perspective, I’d like to arrive at a position I can communicate without waffling or balking. I want to act on my beliefs.
Like my father, I am even-tempered and slow to anger. I hope no one would ever describe me as “mean.” I may never equal him as an artist or stoic, but I’d like to equal his integrity.