Below are the comments I made at my step-father’s memorial service on October 21, 2017. He died on August 21, 2017 only several weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Somehow a tradition developed in our family around Fatherly Advice. The three of us would gather around Jack’s arm chair or bed, he’d push his glasses down onto his nose, and with both humor and seriousness, he’d lower his voice, tell us he could see our lives from the roof of Union Station or some other such promontory, and proceed to advise us. His advice ranged from exactly what we should know about someone before we had intimate relations with them (this included but was not limited to knowing someone and his family well enough to know his mother’s maiden name) and, of course, included birth control recommendations, to being annoyingly reminded on countless car trips that it took three signals from your body about the need to urinate before your body was serious. To explain: the first time your body says to you, “I have to go,” is what Jack considered the 1st signal. Wait and the feeling will fade. At some point, your body will once again raise it’s hand and say, “I still have to go.” 2nd signal. Wait and this feeling will again fade. Your body will, for a 3rd time, announce it’s need to use the bathroom, the so called 3rd signal. This time it’s serious. So whenever one of us announced we had to use the bathroom, we learned to announce whether it was the 1st, 2nd or 3rd signal otherwise he’d ask us. I do not, by the way, recommend you start doing this to your spouse or children. I will also tell you I spent many dinner hours learning the entirety of the digestive system from one end to the other—as well as many other bodily systems, as you might be able to imagine.
When I arrived to be with him just prior to his death, I told him I was there for more Fatherly Advice. By that time, he was having moments of lucidity but mostly was quiet with his eyes closed. He opened his eyes, looked at me, and told me I already had it all. I took this in two ways. One, that he had already passed all of his advice on to me. But even more than that, I understood him to be saying I already had everything I needed.
But advice isn’t always passed on with just words. And I learned about life from the way he lived his last days.
After his diagnosis with cancer, his illness progressed rapidly and there was little time to take it all in. Despite the rapid pace of things, he was clear about how he wanted things to proceed and what sorts of interventions he did and did not want. It was the sort of clarity I know you all saw from him in life whether his relationship with you was as doctor, friend, or family.
His ability to be calm in fraught situations is something you definitely want in a doctor though I must confess I didn’t always comforting. After graduating from college, I came home for six months to live and work as Jack’s office assistant. One afternoon I was assisting him with a procedure in his office. At one point, things became concerning. The only way I knew this was by his becoming more and more methodical, precise and eerily calm. If calm can be scary, in that moment, it was. The only thing I could think was, Oh, shit, we need a doctor.
I saw this same sort of calm as he lived his final days. There was no hemming and hawing. He looked this thing in the eye, made his decisions about how he was going to proceed and did.
And he maintained his sense of humor up until the very end. Just one example of many—we called his high school girlfriend, a person he had maintained a friendship with over the years, and told her we were going to hold the phone up to his ear to let her speak to him. By this point, he was not often responsive to us but was having a moment of more alertness. We told him it was his old friend and that we were going to let her speak to him. He opened his eyes, held his hand up for a moment, peered around at us all hovered over the bed, gave a tiny grin with one side of his mouth and said, How do I look? We, of course, assured him he was as handsome as ever, which he was.
So his final fatherly advice was in the way he lived those final days—with his usual clarity, resolve, calm and great humor.