My dad will always be the smartest man I've ever known. As ever, he knew better than all of us — the doctors, the nurses, the incessantly beeping medical equipment, his family — that he was going to die. After multiple cardiac arrests five years ago, we dismissed it as the justifiable fear of a 67-year-old surgeon intimately familiar with the mysteries and complexities of the body. But he knew. He was telling me all the things he wanted me to know and to remember him saying, not that it was the first time he'd expressed them.
I was newly pregnant with my second child during my dad's last days, and he was among the few who knew I was incubating a new life. "So, you're gonna have another one," he said smiling, after we'd both puked — he for reasons we weren't quite sure about, me from raging hormones. Dueling heavers. He was propped up on his hospital bed pillows and making a tender gesture with his index finger at my belly. "You're a great mom, Lizzy. You're all good parents, you and the boys — I couldn't ask for better kids." He was generous that way, overlooking our flaws.
But on Father's Day, and every day, what I remember most about my father was that he always knew better than anyone, about everything, and his exit was no exception.
In many ways, his recognition that death was coming in the face of evidence to the contrary — there was miraculously no damage to his heart, and all the doctors agreed he'd walk out of that hospital — illustrates his life, and the position of sage he held then, and will forever, in ours.
This was a brilliant, decent, fiercely independent man, powerful without ever needing it acknowledged, someone who loved his wife with every fiber, the sort of person everyone needs in a crisis. And by damn, he got his oil changed every 3,000 miles.
A student of science, baseball, the Civil War, the banjo, history, cars, gardening, basset hounds and the stock market, he rooted for underdogs and encouraged the insecure. But for his fifth-grade palate — his favorite lunch was Campbell's tomato soup, sipped directly from the stove pot he heated it in — he excelled at everything. Friends and medical peers sought his counsel. Neighborhood kids (they called him Dr. John) revered him, and he delighted in their energy, innocence and joyfulness.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt in three years, went to medical school, served in Vietnam and had three children with my mom, all by the age of 28.
Despite all that brain power, he enjoyed giving color commentary about his bowel movements after the fact ("sinkers," "floaters," etc.), and passed gas at the dinner table with abandon, which was infinitely entertaining to my college friends, if not to my mother. After he died, my friend Emily wrote me to say that the sound of thunder was Dad up in heaven.
Dad wasn't always agreeable, and could occasionally be inflexible, gruff, intolerant in rhetoric. But not when it really counted.
Like many of his generation, he would say that he didn't understand or like gays. But when my sweet cousin began expressing her homosexuality openly, he never wavered in his love and support. And when a prominent local businessman well into his twilight years was caught in a police sting of men cruising for gay sex in the park, he didn't join the hushed whispers of the townies. While most everyone else stayed away, unsure of what to do or say — or worse, sanctimoniously passed judgment — he showed up on the man's doorstep. What my dad saw was a tragically lonely and publicly embarrassed man who'd been nothing but productive and gracious in the time he'd known him. So Dad comforted his wife and tried to dull the sting with humor. "I can't believe you're still interested in anything!" he said.
He hated cats, and would get up from a chair at my home if one of mine so much as darkened the door. He'd make faces, sigh dramatically and act as if these sweet four-leggeds were rabid rats ready to tear into his ankles. And then one day when he didn't know anyone was looking, my mom caught him giving them a treat. When the bitter cold of winter came, he'd sit by the fire raging at the neighbors who left their cats and dogs outdoors. "Bastards," I can hear him saying.
He generally embraced the "personal responsibility" mantra of 1990s conservatism, only he knew the difference between choice and poor circumstance. Under his nose, in a town that had lost industry over the years, people who needed health care were going without it. They were humble, by and large hardworking people who fell somewhere between welfare-worthy and lower middle-class. The working poor.
So he recruited doctors and nurses as volunteers, got some grant money and the support of the local hospital, and opened a place where people who needed treatment or preventive care could get it for free. Though in life he never would have allowed it, it's now called the John P. Murray Community Care Clinic.
It's difficult to separate what my dad meant to me from how much he did and how much he knew. If I wanted to know about price-to-earning ratios, curve balls, bursitis or that weird sound my car was making, he was the one I called. But I knew that in addition to wisdom, I'd always get his love too.
I wish I could tell him that the baby we last talked about has his dimples. 'Course, he probably already knows.
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