Friday, April 12, 2013

My Father

A story of my father...

My father was an absolute genius. As the terrifically accomplished litigator, Charles McCowan used to say, "I never understood a word he said but he made me a rich man." Many, many, many people who walk the earth today have benefitted from my father's able mind and kind heart. 

He was born a very poor Jewish boy whose father died when he was only ten. At ten, my father got his first job as a grocery store stock boy, as hehad become "the man of the house." With that he bagged groceries and stocked shelves. When he worked in the storage room, the owner made him whistle so he'd know my dad was not eating any of the goods. It was an exercise in humility and growth. My dad became the best whistler I have ever heard. He could "whistle an opera," I used to say. It was amazing!

As he got older, he had to help his single mother support their family of four. He was a truly gifted genius. I say gifted genius because he could draw portraits with charcoal like a commissioned artist all the while able to regurgitate facts effortlessly and accurately on the biology of the human. He could play the clarinet like a pro, he was a sommelier, he was a certified gemologist, a pilot who flew his own planes, a professional photographer, and a pathologist. He accomplished a great deal in his life all because he believed, "You should live like will die tomorrow and learn like you will live forever" (Gandhi). He always told me an education is something "they" can never take away from you -- get one.

As teens, he and his younger brother joined the boxing team at their high school. My uncle loved boxing and became a golden glove champion whose photo now resides in the Louisiana State University Hall of Fame. My dad on the other hand, loved steak dinner. Because they were so poor, he and my uncle would box with the intent to win. The prize? A trophy and a steak dinner. The steak was motivator enough to win. Poor kids never ate steak. My dad said he was fed grits all his childhood and I recall as I was growing up, he refused to eat any oatmeal, grits, malt-o-meal or anything of the gruel sort. Sadly, a diet of steak, potatoes and Jack Daniels on the rocks ultimately killed him.

While still a young man, his genius was noted by a great man named Dr. Frank Low. Dr. Low hired my father as an apprentice of sorts and that was when my father's life turned around. His love for pathology and the lab was ignited. He became so passionate about his discoveries that he and Dr. Low discovered a new method of surgical treatment for Bell's Palsy -- still used today. Together, they authored several books. My father was asked to teach at Louisiana State University Medical and Tulane Medical School while he was still a medical student. Many of my friends' fathers were taught by mine. He penned the Louisiana State University Medical School governing laws. He authored teaching texts, as well. In fact, when I was seeing a young fighter pilot who attended the Air Force Academy I met his roommate's brother. This guy was in medical school and studying from a book my father co-wrote. As my father grew older his passion for the lab grew -- with him. He truly loved lab work and solving the mystery of cause of death. He was a true forensic scientist whose years as a medical examiner proved quite exciting in an area of this country that is riddled with mysterious causes of death. He was a coroner for 30 years. He was the head of many labs in Louisiana, including the Leprosy hospital that was once in Carville, Louisiana -- now closed. The only other Leprosy hospital was on Molokai, here in Hawaii as so many of my Hawaii friends know.

My dad's genius brought him a fortune in life experience and wealth -- which he shared most generously with so very many. He built his mother's first home, ***he put his brother through law school (a man who went on to become a fine lawyer, a state representative, the speaker of the house, Lt. Governor, and later a judge). He hired his sister -- without whom he could not have successfully run his medical practices. Yes, he practiced medicine –- not because he preferred people to the lab because he did not. He practiced medicine because people loved him and needed him and he was born to live in service to others – so that, he did. His favorite Saint was Saint Francis of Assisi and he lived by the words that Saint Francis penned and prayed.

He worked tirelessly and he gave back -- and he paid it forward before paying it forward was popular. He donated a great deal of money and time to Louisiana State University medical school, created a scholarship in his mother's name at Louisiana State University School of Nursing (she was an R.N. -- and her story is quite fascinating). He was a rich man in the ways that "rich" has real meaning -- by that I mean he was compassionate, kind, brilliant, and charming. He looked quite "rabbinical” and wise. He was handsome but not considered a looker, like his brother may have been. He had huge ears but because they were so poor his mother could not afford to have them "pinned" as so many said she should. I remember meeting the father of a friend from Episcopal High School and he was a plastic surgeon who knew -- and respected -- my dad. However, rather than honor his genius, he said, “Your dad should have let me fix those ears of his.” I said, “My father is far too secure to worry with such things.” Despite being teased and bullied, called "monkey" and other such terms, he had a strong spirit (god-within), amazing drive, and limitless vision. He was a true genius. He was compassion personified. He was kindness in the flesh. Sometimes, however he was prideful -- would never let others help him in his times of need, and there were a few.

Late in his life, he faced many challenges that were outside his control and he had to learn to let go, as so many of us must. It was probably very difficult for him, as he had been so triumphant against the odds all his life. He was happy for the greater part of his life, but he died an unhappy man, greatly disappointed man. (A story for another day). 

He died at the young age of 62 but his legacy lives on through other people, places, and things. I live my life looking to him for guidance in making my bigger decisions, and he is there for me to give it. I would say I miss him but I truly feel him with me and see him in my 11-year-old son, James (his namesake). I do wish I could hold his hands -- they were strong and soft but not unscathed. Poor boys who grow to be rich men have battered hands that although healed, those hands tell their stories. My father's hands...I will never forget them. 

I miss my father. More than that however, I count my blessings for his having been mine.

***according to the oral tradition that was shared with me. My uncle Bobby states that "nothing could be further from the truth." He states that his wife Marianne and he worked to put him through school.