It’s been a few months that I’ve been writing this. Well, not quite writing it. Crafting would be more like it. In my head. Over and over. Today I needed to write it.
The waves of sadness we have felt the past few days are calmed by an undercurrent of peace.
We know that dad was ready to go. He had talked about it for weeks. He wanted his life to be rich and full and warm and happy right up until the instant he departed. And it was.
I’ve wanted to capture the message. The message that dad sent me for fifty two years, and which I hope can be heard by you – those of you here sharing this time with us – and especially his grandchildren: Molly, Sam, Charlotte, Rosie, Max and Zoe. Listen up – I’m translating Pete here for you, kids. It’s good stuff.
His message was always implicit. It’s not what was said – it’s what was unsaid. And didn’t need to be said. It’s what was done – without fanfare or any quest for recognition – because he loved doing it. Whatever it was.
Today you will hear the vignettes from our family: the funny episodes, the touching courtship of my mother, the track & field success, the rich and beneficent psychiatry career. These are the papier mache.
So I’ll offer some chicken wire, and I’ve even got a mnemonic for you. I’m a fan of Sesame Street – as was dad – so we’ll start with the letter “E” – the first letter of his rarely used middle name. Right there in your program – if you want to follow along. Elliott.
E – Engaged. In his wonderful book, Graceful, Seth Godin contrasts the “tourist” from the “traveler.”
“It’s not the cameras or the colored shirts. It’s the eyes – that dart back and forth – alert for threats, clearly closed to anything that might cause change. It’s OK to notice, but if you [live life] as a tourist – you’ll return as you went – unchanged … The engaged one, the graceful actor in an unfolding play, will open themselves to the world they’ve bought a ticket to, knowing full well that they will be changed.”
Engagement. Dad was always engaged. He sought not to change others to meet some arbitrary model. He engaged with people, science, language, comedy, literature and music – not to influence – but to be influenced. Like dad, I seek to be a traveler rather than a tourist. To be changed, rather than to change. Thank you dad.
L- Listen. Dad knew how to really listen. Listen in a way that validated without judgment, reflected without direction, and motivated without urgency. A few weeks ago, I told dad an affirming story about this wonderful skill he had passed on to me. I was teaching residents and medical students in the hospital in 1998 or so. We were in the emergency department, called there to admit a patient to the hospital who "refused to go home." We found a 40ish woman, lying on her side in the room. The medical workup was entirely normal. A family member had recently been admitted to the hospital for appendicitis. She was scared that she might have appendicitis as well. After we listened to her story, I asked her what else was going on in her life, how she was feeling, what troubled her the most about her situation, and how she was handling it all. I asked her if she would like to go home, and she eagerly agreed that this was the best course of action. On our way out of the ER, the doc exclaimed: "How did you do that!?" "I was in there talking to her for 30 minutes!" “Well,” I replied, “I listened." Dad taught me that. Thank you dad.
L – Love. This one’s hard. I’ll make it short. Love the people, love the places, love the music, the nature, the color of the sky at that special moment, the waves as they crash into the beach. Dad loved so many things and so many people. Most of all, Dad loved mom. Courted away from a football player in high school (or so goes the story I choose to remember), lured 3000 miles to Cambridge for marriage, mom and dad shared and traded the pilot/co-pilot seats for fifty-seven incredible years from Boston to San Francisco to Cambridge to Newton, and annual ventures to Italy and finally back to San Francisco. The growing children always felt unwavering love and support from our parents – even through the hurdles of adolescence and young adulthood that try the patience of all parents. I never had even an inkling that dad disapproved of me. Never. Ever. I think that’s part of what love is. Thank you dad.
L – Learn. (The silent third L in "Elliot.") Dad loved to learn. He was always – up to and including the very last day of his life – learning more about people, the physical world, music, spirituality, and of course – by extension – himself. No opportunity to learn would be missed. The process, more than the content or the result, was exciting to him. He didn’t learn in order to achieve a pinnacle of knowledge – so that he could leverage it in some way to “win” over others. Learning – for the sake of learning – was his passion.
A few weeks ago, he found a copy of a book called The Canon by Natalie Angier. He consumed it with such energy and excitement! I learned from him about the trilobites – 17,000 species of extinct arthropods that are fossilized and have taught us so much about our past. Trilobites died 250 million years ago – yet they're still teaching us.
He was also fascinated by the story of the Sea Squirt. Here's what he read aloud to me:
“The sea squirt is a mobile hunter in its larval stage and thus has a little brain to help it find prey. But on reaching maturity and attaching itself permanently to a safe niche from which it can filter-feed on whatever passes by, the sea squirt jettisons the brain it no longer requires. Brains are great consumers of energy, and it is a good idea to get rid of your brain when you discover you have no further need of it.”
He LOVED the sea squirt! He loved LEARNING about the sea squirt! So fascinating. "good idea to get rid of your brain when you discover you have no further need of it.” So cool. So funny. He adored the sea squirt. Me too! Thank you dad.
I – Introversion. Albert Einstein wrote: “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork.”
Like Einstein, dad was an introvert. As am I. My siblings inherited the "extrovert" gene from mom. (Lucky them – High school is so much easier for extroverts!) Dad's introversion always calmed me – reminded me that I had permission to want to be alone – to need to enjoy things quietly and by myself or with a very small number of others. Dad's introversion reminded me that there was nothing wrong with seeking solitude. Thank you dad.
O – Observation. Dad observed everything. Always watching, seeing things others didn’t notice – in a book, in music, in people, in a landscape, in art. He saw the virtue, the achievements, the unique goodness that makes everything and everyone important. Thank you dad.
T – Tenacity. Dad was focused, tenacious, and determined to do what must be done. We see this in his track and field successes at Lowell High and Harvard and beyond. We see it in his long, successful professional career – and of course we see it in his graceful, Engaged, Listening, Loving, Learning, Introverted, Tenacious final push across the finish line. Dad was, in his final weeks – his true self in every way. He died as he lived – without struggle or anger, without judgement, without fear.
T – Tender.
Elliott – dad's middle name:
I would describe the careers of my father – and his father: psychiatrists whose work was focused on helping others succeed.
No – I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm a family physician, health IT nerd, former federal servant – but my goal is identical to that of my dad – and his dad before him .. and perhaps .. it's YOUR goal too: without judgment, assumption, bias or personal agenda, help others be their best.
And it’s amazing how a set of simple principles can cause humans to be so influential. Without trying to be influential at all.
Thank you, dad. Thank you. Thank you. I will miss you every day, and I am grateful for what you have given – to carry with me forever.
From my run this morning. We humans love the beach. The end of land. The beginning of ocean.