At the end of Dead Poets Society, the teacher played brilliantly by the late Robin Williams is fired mid-year. As he leaves his classroom for the last time, his students, one by one, mount their desks and, quoting Walt Whitman, cry out “O Captain! My Captain!”
If I had a suitable desk, I’d being doing that right now.
This morning (February 14, 2018), my father lies drifting in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity and consciousness, on the threshold of death and life. Most of what he is experiencing now I cannot truly know.
Of course, that’s always been true.
My father and I were cut from very different cloth, molded by different experiences, made for different purposes. While I share my father’s love of problem-solving, I have a much more limited skill for designing and building solutions to physical problems. Almost nothing could resist both his strength of will and his inventive nature. His works included a lunar experiment, obstacle-avoiding coal mine equipment, our race-winning Pinewood Derby cars, and the innovative display cases for our award-winning science projects. In his later years, unable to climb a ladder to hang the massive Christmas wreath on the garage, he engineered an ingenuous pulley system in the attic to hoist the wreath to its place of honor.
As my mother’s capacities diminished, Dad kept inventing ways to maximize her freedom at home. Only when his physical capacity was no longer a match for her increasing physical dependency did he finally consent to putting her in a nursing home. There, he faithfully visited her, tucking her in every night. It would be a gesture he would do one final time as he tucked her gently into the casket for her final rest.
That’s something I learned from my Dad: devotion. He worked hard (probably harder than was good for him). He was absolutely faithful in over 60 years of marriage. While he wasn’t a warm, fuzzy Dad, there was no question of his devotion to his three sons. When I contracted chicken pox at the same time my younger brother was born, my father stayed with me at his parents’, even though his boss threatened to fire him if he did.
In these later years, he even showed some warmth and fuzziness, especially with his great-grandchildren.
Dad and I also can be difficult. We both have short fuses, lashing out verbally without justification, often attacking those closest to us. In this area, my own life experiences and training sometimes have allowed me to help both my Dad and me find a better path and a measure of peace.
And soon . . . Dad will have ultimate peace.
Our ability to serve grows out of our experiences, our education and our training. We learn first and most powerfully by observation, watching others confront challenges, deal with hardships and navigate relationships. Those closest to us provide us with the most lessons to consider. Sometimes, we’ll learn how not to do something. Sometimes, exactly how to do it best.
It is an important act of humility to acknowledge our debt to those who have taught us. And it is an essential act of humanity to grieve their passing.
O Captain! My Captain!
Interested in hearing me speak live? I’ll be at the National League of Cities Congressional Conference with two opportunities to learn: Leadership 101- Rules and Tools and Leadership 201- Fostering a Culture of Ethics. Join me on Sunday, March 11.