Saturday, April 08, 2017

An Homage to a Consummate Teacher

Preface: It has always been my belief that losses in life need to be honored if healing is to occur. Time must be devoted and attention given to the suffering that losses inflict. Taking loss seriously means engaging the grieving with compassion. Such engagement must always begin with oneself if it is to extend to others.

In my life, loss and grieving have always been marked with ritual - both formal and informal -and by actions designed to transform the darkness of loss into something of value - if not beauty. For me those actions have taken two main expressions: gardening and writing. 

For the past two years as I have sought a balm for a broken heart in the good Earth of my beloved garden, I have also written entries for my blog sites detailing my experience of my Father’s decline and eventual death. I have sought to place those events in the context of a life strongly shaped by the loving presence of two wonderful parents and in the context of growing up in a Florida which today bears only passing resemblance to the state of my childhood, a grief I share with many fellow Floridians.

Loss always comes wearing a multitude of disguises.

This final entry in this series comes at the end of two years of reflection on human finitude, on death and making meaning of life. I am grateful for you who have indulged me in reading and considering these reflections. It is my prayer that my insights may provide food for thought and balm for the places in your own hearts where loss and grief reside.

Hometown Boy Laid to Rest

I went to visit my parents last week. They are now both buried in the National Cemetery outside of Bushnell. The headstone that formerly bore only my Mother’s information – marking the spot where she lay in her grave awaiting my Father - has been rotated 180 degrees and now bears my Father’s information as well.

His ashes now rest just above our Mother’s heart, just as he instructed.

Their final resting place is a fitting tribute to them both. The memorial is attractive, unassuming and comfortably at home among the rows of white granite stones marking the final resting places of American veterans and their spouses, the kinds of people both of them served in their lifetimes of public service. 

It is a tranquil island of repose among a sea of live oaks and palmettoes in this river basin region of Sumter County.

My Father is buried just a few miles down the road from the place where he was born. His family had migrated to Florida from Oklahoma during the 1920s land boom which went bust shortly after their arrival. Daddy was the only child born in Florida.

His house – which his engineer father built - no longer stands. But a living memory of that birth survives in the scrub that has taken over the property where it once was located. The day my Dad was born, his Father planted a bamboo tree in the yard. Amidst the water oaks, palmettoes and wild grape vines strangling everything they can wrap their tendrils around, the bamboo still thrives these 90 years later.  

This overgrown lot is a reminder of a bygone era, a small parcel of undeveloped countryside no doubt awaiting a developer’s bulldozer like much of the rest of Sumter County.  The 125,000 residents just estimated by the Census Bureau to live in the county represent a ten-fold increase of the population of this once rural county of just 50 years ago when my Dad moved our family from Tampa Bay back to his hometown. Like the wild grape vines strangling everything they touch, an obsession with “development,” driven by a behemoth retirement “community” in the county’s northern end, is busy swallowing up what is left of a place where cows once outnumbered people.

The Cemetery is less than a mile down the road from Sumter Correctional Institute where my Father once taught US Government for Lake-Sumter Community College to inmates who knew only too well how the judicial aspect of that government worked - or didn’t. Eight miles further east lies the town of Bushnell where his mother once taught school, where he grew to young adulthood before heading out to serve his country in the Pacific Theatre of WWII and thereafter obtaining a Masters of Science in Agriculture from the University of Florida on the GI Bill.

Just north of town in the heart of 11 wooded acres lies the home he had built for his family and in which he lived the remainder of his life. The majestic yard bearing hundreds of azaleas is dominated by a venerable 200 year old live oak and marks the site of an early 20th CE turpentine plantation town named Edenfield.

My Father was born and died at places within three miles of one another. He lived the majority of his life in this once little town now struggling with the reality of becoming an exurb of several competing metropolitan areas. While he tried other things ranging from insurance sales to real estate, his heart was always in education. And it was that heart-driven service of the community that was honored at the reception held fittingly at the high school he had served for so many years of his life.

Teaching is in Our Genes

I am the fourth generation of teachers in my family and the third generation of college instructors. My Father’s grandparents were named Reed and Wright. They were teachers. His Mother had been a teacher in the school he attended in Bushnell. My Father was my teacher for Florida history, Civics and Driver’s Education.

At the reception, wave after wave of people came by to pay their respects to my Dad. A few of them were his colleagues, teachers who held the local high school together through two rounds of tumultuous change. The first was the consolidation of two rural schools into one high school in 1959, the second the closing of the local black high school and the integration of their students and staff into the now desegregated white high school in 1966. Many who came had been my teachers. It was good to see them after so many years.

But most of the 100 people on site were his former students. Their stories recalled his quirky pedagogy: a judicious use of the passenger side brake followed by the question “What did you forget?;” a calm statement that the student driver’s failure to check the oncoming traffic while entering the local interstate on-ramp just resulted in them being run over “by a big rock truck.” In all cases, there was praise for his patience, his nerves of steel in shepherding teenage drivers fearful of this new responsibility into becoming safe, competent drivers.

The lessons my Father taught were not relegated to the classroom, the Ag fields or the Driver’s Ed car. My Dad’s life taught lessons in how to treat other human beings with respect and dignity. He readily saw the potential of every student he taught and sought to develop it to its maximum. He often was assigned students that no other teacher wanted to deal with. Not all of them were success stories. But in every case, he never lost sight of their humanity, with all its frailties and nobility.

So many of his friends and former students remembered those qualities at the reception. They spoke of his compassionate caring for them when their lives were in turmoil. They spoke of his generosity of his time, life wisdom and material goods when they were in need. They remembered his boisterous singing as a substitute school bus driver, the smile that lit up his face when he encountered them and his unwillingness to give up on many who were more than ready to give up on themselves.

At some level, I think he might have been a bit embarrassed by the outpouring of loving admiration and appreciation at the reception. Truth be told, my Father wanted none of this. He had made me promise there would be no funeral for him. He even put it in writing. But even as I promised him I would not hold a funeral for him, I told him that my sister, Carole, would probably insist on holding some kind of event. He said, “I know she probably will, Son, but don’t tell me about it.”

So I didn’t. 

Knowing that the VA would provide a brief opportunity for a graveside commemoration (at the end of your allotted 30 minutes the staff politely but firmly reminds you that you have to leave so the next service can begin) Daddy instructed me to conduct the same commitment rite from the Book of Common Prayer that we used for our Mother 10 years earlier. Ten days after he died, we held that service.

The Navy chaplain gave a generic Christian sermon, a serviceman played Taps and a flag was unfolded, displayed, refolded and presented to my Sister. When the sailors had concluded their ritual, they marched away.

The commitment rite from the service booklets I had prepared followed. I had dressed in clericals with my Dad’s sweater pulled over my bare arms on this chilly morning, a white stole around my neck. My nephew, Joe, held the bowl of consecrated water as we blessed the four directions at the site, the urn itself and then said the final prayers of the commitment rite.

Prior to attending seminary at midlife, I would never have predicted that I would end up conducting the final rites for both of my parents. Who could imagine such a thing? It was an unexpected but cherished gift. And despite the fact it was deeply painful, I will always be grateful for having had those opportunities.

A Rich Life, A Peaceful Passing

Consummate [adjective kuh n-suhm-it, kon-suh-mit] Adjective –
complete or perfect; supremely skilled; superb

My Father was the consummate teacher, something I took for granted for most of my 63 years with him. Indeed, both of my parents were wonderful teachers and we children who were the beneficiaries of their wisdom all of our lives had no idea how lucky we were.

As a rather naive child, I didn’t know that all parents didn’t expose their children to all types of music, sing with them and encourage them to learn to play musical instruments. I didn’t know that all parents didn’t travel, setting the example of learning about other peoples and cultures, and inviting people of a wide range of ethnicities and social classes into their home. I didn’t know that all parents didn’t take time to teach their children the native flora and fauna, how to garden and fish, and take them to the museums and monuments to learn the history of their state and nation.

But it was not until the very end of my Dad’s life that I realized how lucky I had been to be the beneficiary of some of the deepest wisdom he had to share.

In one of my last conversations with my Dad in his hospital room at UF Shands Teaching Hospital in Gainesville, we talked about the many things that we each had been able to experience in our lives. Neither of us have ever been particularly concerned about amassing money and concerns for power and status always seemed pretty superficial to both of us. In many ways, I am my Father’s– and my Mother’s - son.

But we each engaged the educational process repeatedly to develop sound bodies of knowledge that have served us well in our roles as educators. We each have traveled the world, eagerly encountering new and different cultures, always with a genuine desire to understand the Other we encounter. And that openness extended to the people of our daily lives, the wide range of people my Dad and I have always invited to become members of our families of choice.

In one of our last conversations, I remarked to my Dad that while neither of us had much money to show for our life work, we had, indeed, been privileged to live very rich lives. I spoke of how grateful I am for that gift. He readily agreed. But more importantly, he consistently modeled it.

My Father’s final lesson to us was perhaps his greatest. He was never particularly religious. He did attend church with us when we were small children and would come for special occasions when his children were in Christmas plays and Vacation Bible School productions. But he didn’t have much use for doctrine or ritual and had no patience at all for self-righteous zealots even as his own life exhibited a spiritual depth that many may have missed.

In his last days of life, my Father repeatedly came back to two topics. One was his concern that everything was in place for me as the executor of his estate. Daddy didn’t have a big estate to leave. But he wanted to make sure that all of his children and grandchildren got something from what he did have. And as a lawyer who has written and probated a number of estates, I can report that he did well, indeed.

“Son, I think I’ve taken care of everything I need to do before I go,” he said. And he had.

The other focus of his attention in his last days was his burning desire to be reunited with our Mother, his beloved life partner of 53 years who predeceased him by 10 years and, he said, awaited his return to her loving embrace at the National Cemetery. In our last couple of conversations, that was all he talked about.

In the days before her death my Mother had told me that she was dreaming of her Father virtually every night. “He’s waiting for me,” she said. And no doubt he was. As Daddy’s time to reunite with her drew near, he said he had begun to dream of her. And I have no doubt that she was waiting for him as well.

What was so striking about his departure was how much peace marked his dying moments. There was absolutely no fear of death. When the time came, he simply slipped away in peace.

My Dad evidenced no concern about getting the right religious formula to assure him he would walk down mansion lined streets of gold with Jesus rather than burn in the flames of hell. Such concerns are for those of us who spend years of our lives in theological study and debates.

But they are also the concerns of opportunistic preachers who pimp the fears of vulnerable, grieving survivors at funerals seeking converts. It was such behavior of one of the clergy at my Mother’s funeral that became one of the primary reasons my Dad had insisted on there being no funeral for him. He wanted none of that kind of manipulative behavior engaged in his name.

With his affairs in order, my Father died peacefully, confidently, trusting whatever happened next - if anything - would be OK. One of his hands rested in the hand of his beloved daughter, the other in the hand of his beloved grandson, his sons enroute from Orlando to be by his side.

Not surprisingly, even in dying, my Father was the consummate teacher. I have no idea what my Dad’s concept of the Divine might have been though I suspect it would have been at best generalized and abstract. What I do know is that he trusted whatever he understood with his very existence and let go of his life in peace to pass into whatever might follow.

Such existential trust is truly a gift and a model worth emulating.

In all honesty, I cannot imagine a better death. I hope my own will be similar. And I believe all of us who knew my Dad are in the debt of this consummate teacher for this masterful final lesson.

Well done, good and faithful servant. May you rest in peace. And may the gifts you offered our world be remembered with gratitude and honored by passing them on to others.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


1 comment:

Sue Cline said...

A beautiful, thoughtful recounting
of a life well lived by a generous,caring, loving man,from one of his beloved sons. Rest
well, Mr. C.