In Remembrance of my father-in-law, Arthur F. Field III
In his book, Bread for the Journey, Henri Knouen described death like this:
“Dying is a gradual diminishing and final vanishing over the horizon of life. When we watch a sailboat moving toward the horizon, it becomes smaller and smaller until we can no longer see it. But we must trust that someone is standing on a faraway shore seeing that same sailboat become larger and larger until it reaches its new harbor.
“Death is a painful loss. When we return to our homes after a burial, our hearts are in grief. But when we think about the One standing at the other shore eagerly waiting to welcome our beloved friend into a new home, a smile can break through our tears.”
It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it? But doesn’t it seem more likely that Art is standing up near the bow, a little anxious to get where he’s going, his glasses clenched in his teeth, reading a long list of items he’s prepared to ask God about?
“Why do professional athletes makes so much money?”
“Are tax abatements really necessary?”
Perhaps even, “Why am I here so soon?”
On the shore, God is standing there delivering a pep talk to the angels surrounding him, trying to boost morale for the discussion (arguments) to come.
Here was a man who is best described as a contradiction: A conservative democrat. A sober Irishman. An accountant who often failed to keep tabs. He was a good father, but he excelled at being Grandpa. He loved this city and the people who make it what it is, but he had no use at all for the professional sports that have come to define it.
He was a man with great faith and conviction who loved to argue, but wouldn’t begrudge you for not agreeing. In fact, he seemed to prefer to be around people who didn’t agree, because the arguing was so much more enjoyable.
He loved to tell off-color jokes to the very people who were the subject of the joke. If the joke started “a rabbi, a priest and a prostitute walked into a bar,” Art’s preference would be to pull together a rabbi, a priest and a prostitute to tell it to. His little lesson in humility, I think. He spread most of these jokes via the fax machine. A couple months ago he pulled me aside and said, “Next year, I’m getting email.” If he’d known how many jokes were sent via email, he would have signed up years ago.
It comes as no surprise to those who knew him that Art loved parties. He loved them for the people and the camaraderie. He hated to leave and, more often than not, he and Charmaine were the final couple on the dance floor and the last out the door.
When the disciples asked Jesus which commandment was most important, he replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” This was the first lesson of Art’s life and he worked to bring this commandment to life.
If you were doing okay, he fully expected you to keep on pulling your weight. More than once, he wrote car loans for the kids and had the payoff calculated to the penny – and intended that every penny was paid back. But if you were down on your luck, or you needed help, or you were looking for someone to support your cause, or you needed to renovate a church after a fire, there were few people more willing to lend a hand or more generous than Art.
He kept meticulous records. Charmaine, standing amidst stacks of National Geographic magazines going back to the 60’s might say a bit too meticulous. I remember the Christmas holiday that he was showing off his tax return… from 1953. But when it came to helping someone, Art mysteriously forgot to keep track. And he often did these things for people he either hardly knew or didn’t know at all. He would rent you a house but rarely collect the rent. He made loans that went unpaid. I don’t know how many returns he filed without ever collecting payment for preparing them. And he didn’t want anything in return. It was his nature to pay things forward, and he did it readily and willingly.
The evidence of his generous nature continues to come back to us in unexpected ways. A few months ago, I met a man who had worked with Art almost thirty years ago and hadn’t seen him in some time. When he found out he was my father-in-law, he spent the next half an hour recounting the things Art had done for him all those years ago.
We all know that change can be difficult. When cancer arrived on Art’s doorstep fourteen years ago it came as a wake up call; he woke up. I’ve witnessed dramatic changes in the man I met twelve years ago. I believe he saw in his cancer a chance to remake himself in the image he wanted to become. A second chance, of sorts, to hold life a little closer, to hold his grandkids a little longer, to hold Charmaine a little tighter.
And through it all, the radiation, the surgeries, the toll it took on him, he never complained. In fact, the first and only time I ever heard him utter a complaint was just a few months ago, when the pain had him incapacitated. He was a man’s man. He was a fighter. He, indeed, fought the good fight. And while in the end he lost his battle with this life, he won the greater reward and goes on before us to light the way.
When someone has been battling cancer for fourteen years, it may sound a little silly to say that we were all taken by surprise by Art’s sudden decline earlier this year. But that’s exactly what happened. It seemed as if one day he was trying to break my hand with his handshake and the next he was in intensive care. We were unprepared and honestly, things didn’t look so good. It was at this moment that God revealed the last piece of his plan for Art and taught us the final lesson of his life.
His recovery and reprieve was a blessing of the highest magnitude and we all took full advantage of it. Charlie, his 18th grandchild was born. There was time to visit, time to talk. And the lesson is this: if you have something to say, say it. If you have something to do, do it. Don’t wait. Don’t waste a single minute in unnecessary anger or pointless self-pity. Live the life that God has given you, because second chances don’t come around very often.
When Paul wrote his second letter to the congregation at Corinth, he addressed several issues they were facing and provided a doctrinal basis for dealing with them. Most notably for us, he reveals his faith that Jesus’ passion and resurrection are the pattern for all Christian life, which provides us great comfort:
2 Cor: 4
“So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith,
according to what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke,
we too believe and therefore speak,
knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus
will raise us also with Jesus
and place us with you in his presence.”
So as Art sails off to the next destination on his journey, he leaves in his wake a wife who loved him unconditionally, his children and grandchildren, his extended family and friends. And now we stand here as picture-perfect contradictions of our own. We are miserable for our own loss and will miss him dearly, yet our hearts are full of joy for what lies ahead for Grandpa, for Dad, for Art.