When Bill’s dad, Stu, passed away two springs ago, we inherited his small lake house in Michigan. As we finally emerged from heavy-hearted grief, we came here to befriend the home; to take its read, and ours, while inside it for a time. What marvelous little treasures we found! Seashells from beach vacations, playbills from his yearly Canada trips to the Shakespeare Festivals, and many 10-pound tomes that only the ambitious intellect would consider reading. Stu was probably the smartest and most cultured person I’d ever met, and he chose to direct that considerable intellect toward teaching kids. Me? I chose to direct one of those 10-lb. books to prop up my makeup mirror.
He’d often use words foreign to me. “I’m tired of all the tropes being thrown around by the politicians!” Stu said one day. “Tropes? Is that, um, the plural of trollips?” I asked. He’d then beam his patient teacher smile. Stu taught me the difference between a thespian and a docent. A lover of the arts, he was both. If life were fiction, he could have easily dropped in to play a colorful role in Amos Towle’s “Rules of Civility”.
One morning Bill approached me with an excited expression on his face, carrying an oversized manila envelope. “Look what dad did!” he said, pulling out blown up, poster-size photos of pictures we’d all taken over the years. There were about a dozen of them, and they told a story of his life in some way. It’s remarkable how one’s life can be summed up so concisely, in just a few photos. Several months back I gave a TED talk and described my life in about 12 minutes, so I knew this was possible.
His choices: most were of Bill, a few of Bill with our son Andrew, one with him and our potpourri of pets, one of Bill captaining Stu’s beloved pontoon boat. There was the 1940 Packard sedan with Stu by its side, proud owner. The curious one: our infant son Andrew in the hospital just after we adopted him from Romania. A week after landing in the US, Andrew suddenly got deathly sick. We rushed him to Detroit’s Beaumont Hospital, and the kind nurses and doctors ministered to him in peds ICU for 2 weeks. The photo was taken while Andrew was on a ventilator, all wired up with the many machines needed to help him breathe and stay alive. I hadn’t looked at that picture in years. I’d never noticed before how those machines dwarfed his tiny, sickly body.
Of all the hundreds of photos Stu could have chosen to capture his life, why this one? Here’s my take: Stu was an eternal optimist. He’d come stay with us every year for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and during these visits I rarely saw him without a smile on his face and a mission to ‘tame Knoxville’ this trip. We never knew precisely where he went when he set out each day, but he’d always come back with a chocolate malt and a great little story about the town’s goings on.
So I think that photo — one of a sick infant boy who the doctors gave less than a 50/50 chance of survival, a child who lived through all of that for Stu to love with all his heart — reminded him that we can overcome just about anything. There’s always hope, even when things look bleak. This message was an unexpected treasure, about as good as any Stu could leave behind.