Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Pale Retelling of a Deeply Rich, Vibrant Life

I gave one of the eulogies at my dad’s funeral on Saturday, Jan 14, 2017. The event brought together aunts, uncles & cousins from both sides of the family, and long time friends.

In preparation, I followed the advice of my wise friend Pat - - call up siblings, and ask “What’s one of two things that come to mind right now?” What an eye opening exercise that was! I would say this is a useful task to undertake well before a person passes away. You get a nuanced sense of aspects obvious to others that are probably just never shared. Each conversation was akin to a new puzzle piece, that upon adding makes the overall picture deeper and richer. The color saturation gets deeper. Recurring themes are more obvious. And I saw more clearly why people mourned, and to what extent.

Dad’s absence is akin to one of the anchors in one’s life being released. Adjusting to this drifting sense is difficult and unwanted. I think about him every day. Perhaps due to my own lymphoma, death is a topic I have ruminated much more than I intended to, and when dad shared back in October that “at some point I will need to change to palliative care” I started bracing for my own emotional collision. I decided on that day to celebrate the exquisite blessing of all the days I have known him, and think less of proceeding without him.

Below is the eulogy (I have added images for this post because I can). It is still a diluted representation of my dad - he used his smarts to be a catapult for many people. [NOTE: what you see in colored text are some of the stories people shared & relevant quotes.] Here we go…


On behalf of our family, thank you for celebrating Dad's life with us today. It is deeply appreciated.

Also, thank you to Mom, Cindy and Susan in particular, and all of you for your unwavering and compassionate care. Dad is certainly proud to see all that was done.

I am Abraham, the first of Dad’s three children. It is an honor and a privilege to stand before you today with a difficult task. To help capture the enormity of this man, I spoke with many you to hear your memories and observations - - thank you for your thoughts.

I have woven some of these stories into what I will share and I will start with the initial sentences from my younger son Sidd's upbeat 6th grade biography about my dad which goes as follows, "80 years ago in Kerala, India, a great surgeon-to-be was born. Even though he was just a person born into a big family in a third world country, Punnoose Pachikara was not your ordinary person. Mr. Pachikara had a life far different than most. Not only did he have an unusual childhood, but Punnoose had an interesting marriage and surgeon life too."

Graduation 1962-ToWeb
A Newly Minted Doctor, circa 1962
(Click for larger images)

My dad left India for Scotland and then America just before I was born, my mom then joined him while my grandparents took care of me. Therefore, I met my dad for the first time in June of 1966, just before my 4th birthday after being chaperoned from the southwestern tip of India all the way to JFK. Dad met me with a Tonka toy truck in hand, saying, "I'm your dad" and it was the start of a tremendous, precious adventure.

Looking back at Dad's life, here are observations to share with you:

My dad was a linchpin in his own family: Punnoose Pachikara was known to his family as Sunny, was the 2nd of 14 kids, and given his father was a lawyer who traveled on business, he was the surrogate father of the house from a young age.

Perhaps due to this unique situation, he had a lot of practice taking care of his siblings and frankly, Dad excelled as a human in all the roles we play - son, little brother to his sister Daisy Aunty, big brother to 12 others, brother-in-law to 18 wives and husbands of his and my mom's siblings, an uncle to 42 nephews and nieces, father of 3, and perhaps most of all, as a husband permanently infatuated in my mom. He played these roles with ease even as his health failed.

To his siblings, one of my dad's "parental aspects" was that whenever he learned about success by one of his siblings, it simply made him profoundly proud, like any father or mother. Never was there jealousy or personal regret when one of them called to share good news, just a glowing response of how well they had done with their talents and time. This was notable as dad's father died 45 years ago when many of his siblings were young adults or teenagers, and from that time onward they looked to him for guidance, celebration and consolation.

Dad embodied the American dream, and even more important, he served to create success in others, aggressively leveraging his unique position as the 2nd oldest.

As example when he was in medical school all the siblings would highly anticipate his visits home. Remember he is 21 years older than his youngest sibling, so when he was 19 or 20, some of the youngest brothers were toddlers and one was not yet born. Yet he wouldn't just mingle with the older siblings, he spent time with all of them. My dad would bring a big bag of candy, and everyone would gather together to enjoy the sweets and hear of his adventures. The author of my favorite book, the Little Prince, once said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." This is exactly what dad did - deeply inspiring them thru his profound love of learning, and romancing them with his med school epiphanies about anatomy, his interesting classmates, the hard challenges of examinations and showing how it was all simply remarkable. His influence was deep. As example, Davis Uncle was around 4 at the time, could read well but had never seen a book as massive as Gray's Anatomy. So he would sneak away with it on these visits, getting hooked on the medical field at a young age

Dad and his grandparents-ToWeb
A North Star to his 13 siblings - Dad is in 2nd low, the very left
(Click for larger images)

Dad took the risk to leave India in the '60s as a young man, venture to this place called "America," continuously gain skills, and religiously send home a significant portion of his own income (in tight collaboration with his younger brother Stephen) to enable a college education for 11 younger siblings. All the while, he remained a big presence at home and pushed forward his own career. Among the outcomes: he personally enjoyed an intellectually vibrant surgical calling; he saw his siblings become doctors, engineers, college professors and one accountant; and watched nieces and nephews go on to an even wider array of professions. My dad loved gardening, and his first gardens were his young, impressionable siblings, and his spouse and children, all of whom he nurtured, helped support thru higher education, watching them grow and flourish.

Dad was a remarkable husband: Mom was my dad's first and persistent love, and the same was the case for her. Theirs was a romance of two people with similar core values and opposite ways of operating. Dad was a "concrete sequential" scientist, and at least 90 degrees different was mom, who was a random abstract artist. He is a profoundly logical man but every rule has its exception, and he found mom to be both the exception and exceptional. They had a traditional, arranged marriage and at their first meeting he had some cut and dry expectations like area of study, & university. But Mom's enchanting whimsy and optimism just overwhelmed this dry logic. Dad saw an extraordinary personality in her, was hooked, and a symbiotic journey was started. Mom and dad celebrated, prayed, meditated, romanced & traveled across life together - it was truly a 55 year honeymoon. My older son Paul summed it up well in a 55th Anniversary card "When a marriage is like yours, the couple tend to know each other better than best friends. They come to understand each other, how far to go with jokes and pranks, they know each other’s strengths and weakness. And yet that is not all they do, for you see it’s good to know but better to take action. That is what couples like you do" But to be clear, they really are so different - he plans, she reacts. For example, on visits to Chicago, he would review the map, and she would grimace, saying "my goodness it is the same route, they didn’t build a new Interstate highway, we'll just jump in the car and go." Annoyed, my dad’s reply was, "I am not planning on getting lost, that's why I look at the map"

The Young, Cool Couple, in Chicago
(Click for larger images)

With mom at his side, Dad was a traveler: He knew he was an adventuring spirit, journeying from a tropical paradise to Edinburgh, then on to Chicago. But when mom arrived they found they shared a nomadic ethos, taking us to unbelievable places like Churchill, Manitoba, which is so far north in Canada that it’s on the polar bear migration route. We then spent 8 years in in a remarkable Mennonite prairie town called Winkler, population 2700. There he worked side by side with a long time medical school classmate, Dr. Jacob. Finally mom's and dad's desire for warmer weather and to be closer to family brought us south to Murphysboro, where he had the tremendous good fortune to join the practice of two larger than life personalities, Drs. Andrew Esposito and Raimundo Rodriguez, and also work with many good hearted practitioners like Drs. Ballesteros, Del Carmen and Macaraeg.

New Americans-ToWeb
Mom Acting Like the Nonchalant Smoker, to the Amusement of Dad
(Click for larger images)

Dad was a full-on parent to my sisters and myself. At every age of our lives, he was all-in, expanding our horizons, inquiring into careers and personal lives, honoring our individuality, and being a 24/7 doctor to any health issue. An inspiring audio tape captures him patiently explaining to Cindy at age 3 what the word "another" means - - “this is a book, this is ANOTHER book” - - trying over and over to get her to use it in the right context, with a proud chuckle in his voice. And just two weeks ago, even though he himself was in a lot pain, he was giving me very explicit instructions about changing my own antibiotic prescription after a tonsillectomy. Raising kids was of the highest priority for him.

With the Young Family
(Click for larger images)

Dad was a skilled, compassionate surgeon: He wanted to be an engineer and surgery was the closest medical option as every day he had the chance to work on the most mesmerizing structure he knew of, the human body. Surgery meant he unequivocally fixed people, from young to old. Easy operations; complicated ones; he moved fluidly thru all of them. His passion for and wizardly knowledge of anatomy enabled him to deftly navigate and resolve vague, intricate problems. Yet he treated all colleagues with respect and earned the comradery of the entire medical staff, from physicians, to nurses to the hospital administrators.

Operating photo-ToWeb
The Young Surgeon
(Click for larger images)

The life and death nature of medicine made him very conscious of the fleeting nature of time, and therefore he never got caught up in the small & the petty: It was peculiar how he never spent time gossiping, or having small arguments, and sometimes would call out when others did. Bad choices by others gained his dismay, be it a teenager he was treating from a car accident, or someone who was in poor health due to bad decisions. At a family gathering, a heated argument erupted between two younger brothers. Finally dad took action, clearly annoyed at this development. But… he did not order them to stop, the parent in him wanted them to be more self-aware of their own actions, so he interrupted them in an irritated tone, saying, “this is what you choose? To waste everyone’s time, to argue, and over something as small as this? Why not make it worth our while, throw some punches?” The brothers saw his point, and lost all the petty steam and anger. On a different occasion, I recall him telling a family member, "some actions however small are remembered for years by the other person. Think about that when you choose what you do next." You know, sometimes it's totally maddening to be given a choice instead of an order, but his ability to reframe a situation without forcing it on you was profoundly valuable. It showed he respected you… and expected you to act as a caring adult.

Dad had an unshakable internal compass. It kept his life uncluttered and at times resulted in surprising outcomes. Back in 1980 in Bombay airport, dad stubbornly demanded to fill out the painful paperwork and pay a 300% duty on 3 Canon cameras he was bringing for the family. In truth, that was the law. The customs officer simply wanted a bribe and finally told Dad to just go on without doing anything. I was incredulous. The scientist in him was less convinced of the mystical aspects of religions and more attracted to what could be observed and acted on - that is, their common principles of serving as a good human being. On a number of occasions he would tell me, "Santhosh, it is easier to believe in Christ than it is to act like Christ, but the latter part is what's more important." This persistent faithfulness to action, compassion, patience, love, optimism are what many remember about him.

Another Great Afternoon
© 1992, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

Dad gained inspiration from the greatest personalities in history: From the age of 4 onward, I can recall him painting vivid stories of people who changed the course of history, how they did it, and why. For example, Einstein, da Vinci, Marie Curie, Aristotle, Hitler, Napoleon & Plato. And countless innovators in medicine like Halsted, Jenner, and Fleming. In fact, dad’s youngest brother Starling is not named after the bird. Rather, dad convinced his even more headstrong father to name his youngest brother Starling, after Dr. Ernest Starling, a brilliant physiologist who studied how blood vessels work. As a child, I used to get annoyed by the unending stream of peerless benchmarks. But as I got older, I saw the merit in this approach.

He was a vast warehouse of knowledge and wisdom: Dad was smart but he didn’t start that way. When he entered the 7th grade, he decided to pray to Holy Mother Mary for good grades, offer gifts to the church and goof around. To his shock & embarrassment, he failed 7th grade, and decided prayer without action was a fool’s errand. The outcome was a lifelong student of not just medicine but such topics as history, philosophy, politics, and science. In med school he was the guy to beat, competing for and earning gold medals from rigorous tests in pediatrics and then ob/gyn.

Summer Gathering
© 1992, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

He shared these wisdoms thru inspiring stories: Everyone I speak with remembers my dad's storytelling. From my earliest memories living in Cleveland I recall the same. He enthusiastically declared Aristotle was one of history’s greatest orators, in part from practicing his speeches down at the beach, trying to talk over the roar of the waves. And I got the sense he felt telling stories was important - when I was 4 and 5 in Cleveland, he would take a break from his medical reading and ask me what I dreamt about the night before, patiently listening to my meandering words. When mom and him entertained people, there was a 100% chance that the guests would be laughing to one story after another, to the point my mom would poke him under the table, which did not actually speed up or change the playlist of musings and observations.

Tickling Attack, Counterattack & Truce
© 2014, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

Lastly, he was such an animal lover: As one of so many examples, one day Dad decided the squirrels had to work too hard to pillage the bird feeder so he attached a long 2”x4” from the clothes line pole to the bird feeder to help those rodents waltz across in style.

Capturing the Mystery of Nature
© 2012, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

In the end, the relapse into cancer was akin to an invincible enemy laying siege on him. It made me think of how the Mongols attacked and conquered Baghdad at its height in 1258 - at that time the city was a magnet for scholars and had the largest library known to mankind. They utterly destroyed that library. Similarly there is a saying, "when an old man dies a library is burned to the ground," but not so in the case of dad, as a vast amount of his wisdom, optimism and love are now steeping deep in the souls of many others.

Two Travelers
© 2008, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

It's been just over 50 years since I stepped off that Air India plane and met my dad - - and it's gone as fast as a Japanese bullet train. But just like the countryside seems to be moving slower than it actually is when viewed from the silent cabins of these trains, those 50 years that have gone by like a blur, leaving me with two questions: first of all, am I making good use of those lessons he shared with me about using time well, and serving others in meaningful ways? And secondly, I have often asked myself, why me? Why did I get this guy as my dad, and also this lady as my mom? Life hands us a lot of gifts, some are small and some are huge. This one is so big, it's hard to size up.

All of us will dearly miss his warmth, remarkable storytelling, and decades of unwavering love. Thank you dad for the gift of your life spent with us. And here's to your next great adventure.

I would like to end with a prayer I have said many times that you may like:

Prayer for the Dead
God of life,
Those whom we love die,
but our relationship to them continues.
Lead me to be thankful for all that they have shown me
about loving deeply, living wisely, and knowing You.
Help me to notice those
moments of my life
when I act, think, or believe
because of something
that they have brought
to birth in me.
Remind me to pray for them
and to ask for their assistance
in my need.
Even though I miss them deeply,
allow me to understand we still belong together
and will one day embrace again in your kingdom.

1 comment:

Mary J said...

Thank You Abe for sharing that. I was wishing I had taped it so I could hear again what you said so this is perfect!