Friday, August 14, 2009

25 Years Ago This Month

In August of 1984, my father’s long struggle with type 1 diabetes and related health complications came to an end. He was 48.

Pop grew up in Atlanta, at the south end of Grant Park, on Kendrick Ave. He went to Roosevelt High School (where he was student body President in 1953-54) and earned his undergraduate degree at Presbyterian College. He met my mother while he was at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta and she was at Agnes Scott College. They married in 1959 and enjoyed a happy marriage of 25 years. After earning his PhD at the University of South Carolina in 1964, Pop joined the Language Education Department at the University of Georgia and taught there until his health forced him to retire in 1983.

After Pop's death, two of his colleagues wrote in an obituary that "those of us who worked closely with him lost a dear and trusted friend, while the English teaching profession lost one of its most valued contributors . . . His intelligence was penetrating; he could articulate in a few words what others took many to express, and strike at the heart of an issue with grace and sensitivity. He never showed a trace of pretension or desire to manipulate; his treatment of all people was respectful, sincere, and understanding.” One of his graduate students (and a friend of the family) confided in me once that “nothing was ever good enough,” meaning that he inspired such devotion that you wanted to transcend your own abilities in the work you did for him. One measure of his professional stature might be found in the fact that a research seminar at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English is named for him.

My personal memories of him have faded, of course. He had some mockable and exasperating qualities, to be sure, but mostly I recall kindness, solidity, intelligence, and attention. I miss him every day. A wonderful family of my own and a fulfilling career have eased the pain of his loss, but one regret I don’t think I will ever quite get over is that we were both at our worst when he died, he wrecked mentally by multiple strokes, I lost in adolescent self-indulgence. I am sorry that he did not live to see me grown up. Once, in his last years, when I was coming clean about the behaviors that were causing me to flunk out of college, he listened sternly, obviously hurt, but he managed to whisper in a stroke-choked voice, “You know I’m proud.” If he was proud of me then, what would he think of me now? I wish he could know his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren and delight in them as his wife does. I wish he could see what his other son, the son who shares his disease, has accomplished as a musician.

As I creep up on Pop’s age at death (I turn 46 this summer), I am thankful for the blessing of my good health. When Pop was my age he had already experienced failing eyesight for years, he had already suffered a stroke, he was about to undergo an amputation, and his kidneys were beginning to fail (that is what ultimately killed him). I would not wish the suffering he endured on anyone.

I am glad, of course, about the medical advances that have made juvenile diabetes easier to manage. Thanks to improved treatment, there seems to be no limit today to what diabetics are able to do and become. Still, the disease is a daily trial for those, such as my brother, who live with it. A diabetic's life is an ongoing high-stakes chemistry experiment, and problems such as workplace discrimination and difficult-to-obtain health insurance make it even worse. Whatever comes out of the current conflict over health care in Washington, I hope that it will be an improvement over the social Darwinism that characterizes the current system's attitude toward uninsured diabetics.

When I think of the summer of 1984, I am also thankful for my mother, the most dauntless spirit I have ever encountered. There is a scene in The Incredibles when Elastigirl saves her two children by wrapping herself around them to save them from a plane explosion. Though that scene is in the action-adventure mode, not to mention a cartoon, it never fails to make me tearful, so reminiscent it is to me of my mother’s brave and selfless conduct during the years when Pop was an invalid. Those years were hell, especially for her, and she kept the hell from swallowing us all.

In strikes me that I have now been without Pop longer than I was with him. He has been gone so long that sometimes it seems that being his son happened to another person, not me. But every now and then something happens to bring the reality of our relationship right into my mind's eye. Several years I ago I completed an advanced degree in his old department. My defense of my research project took place in a conference room where, as a boy, I had spent hours and hours on Saturdays drawing pictures while he caught up on work in his office up the hall. And no matter how ridiculous my pictures were, they always wound up taped to his office door.


Tash said...

I wish I had met your Pop, Jim. But having known you now for 16 years, I think I've had much more than a glimpse of him. An amazing honor to call you and yours relation.

Knox Porter said...

You have crafted a lovely tribute to your family to which I make numerous connections. My dad died, debiliated by years of emphysema, when I was 21. I share the same agony of seeing a father suffer; and the same loss of him not seeing my maturity, advances, and successes as an adult. Yet his legacy is evident in the times I have displayed excellence.