Perhaps we should judge a life by how one is remembered. My dad, who died 10 years ago today, had a SRO funeral. A few hundred Tulsans filled the aisles around seats fit for 200. Many were people I’d never met. Friends from high school. And patients without medical insurance my dad, ever the old school doctor, had visited on unbilled house calls, often bringing him at odds with his more business-minded peers.
My dad was right. He made a habit of taking little self-deprecating comic jabs at himself along with the well-to-do, the privileged, the millionaires of Tulsa — and there are many. The chic Utica Square shopping mall became, in a purposeful self-mocking drawl, ‘OO-TA-KEE Square.’ He called Toyotas ‘tee-OH-tas.’ He once, in a moment of weakness, bought a red Cadillac, then traded it in a week later he was so embarrassed to drive it. Often he’d stop on the way home from work, to look for and collect golf balls overshot by richer doctors outside the walls of a country club. My dad shunned and ignored status, be it ‘MD’ or otherwise. A lieutenant in the navy, he’d pass the officers table in the mess hall to dine with the privates. His favorite people tended to be waiters and clerks and cash attendants. When I’d get upset over something — a book report grade or a football game — he’d say, good-naturedly in a hilariously over-pronounced voice, ‘someone is taking things a LIT-TLE too seriously.’ It let me know that in the end very little that consumes us really matters that much.
Nine months before he died, Lonely Planet sent me on a research trip around the Great Plains, and I cajoled him away from work for a few days of South Dakota roadtripping. I drove the whole way, letting him soak in scenery he’d never expected to see and always wanted to. I purposely approached Mt Rushmore the back way, weaving through the stunning Needle Highway, until we reached, suddenly, a full frontal view of four US presidents in stone. ‘Oh!,’ he said by impulse. Usually one who remained dryly hilarious about everything he did, I’ll never forget this unguarded reaction of joy. Somewhere video exists of the trip, but I’ve still not had the heart to watch it.
The day after he died, I flew back to Tulsa from San Francisco and we found a manila envelope filled with instructions of what to do. He had pre-paid for a gravestone to be beside his brother’s in Bartlesville. He wanted to be cremated. He include a few quotes he wanted to be shared at his service, which included words from Lincoln, Gandhi and the Talmud. Not your standard material for a First Presbyterian service in Oklahoma.
But what was best was his suggestions for who to direct it. An African-American South Baptist preacher patient of his I had never met. Tulsa remains a pretty segregated place, sadly evident from the tragic shootings in north Tulsa a week ago. And I have to think my dad’s choice might have raised a few eyebrows. Good. But I know why he picked him: because he respected him, his passion; he was a friend.
But best of all, finding that envelope on that sad day ended up a parting gift. A chance to collaborate with my dad again, on one last thing. It brought him back to life again for me. Like he always will be.
As I said at the service in 2002, I’ve accidentally been called ‘Richard’ on occasion most of my life. It’s a mistake I’ve never minded.