I admit I haven’t been as prolific as my usual. The truth is, when you’re mourning for someone you love, all you do all day is think about the person who you can no longer call, speak to, or hang out with. It is a deafening silence and although I have been trying to write funny or inspirational essays over the course of the last month, all I really feel like writing about is my dad. But let’s face it, who wants to hear me drone on and on about my father over and over again?
So I took a hiatus, hoping I would find something inspirational to write about other than losing my father, or my mourning, or the fact that I am consumed with grief. But the truth is, the only inspiration I am getting these days comes from a chubby bearded Doctor who died much too young.
Rosh Hashanah is coming, and the month of Elul is upon us. All month I have been telling myself to work on connecting to G-d, become more truthful about my own mistakes, take inventory…..bla bla bla. Again, all I can think about is a chubby bearded Doctor who died much too young.
So rather than fight this, I have decided to write about my father. For those of you who are sick of hearing about it, know that I plan on doing this until I get it out of my system. And if that’s annoying for you, well you can always go read something else. I’m not sure how long it will take. Maybe two or three essays, maybe a year’s worth, but for my own sanity, I must, must, must write about him. And if I don’t write about him, I am afraid I will never pick up a pen again. So this is the process of a grieving writer that you are witnessing. The process of a writer getting over life’s battles, the process of a daughter coping, the process of realizing the person who raised me, who lifted me up in my most difficult times, who always was there carrying me on his shoulders will only leave me properly if I write about him, and in doing so, I keep him alive, and in doing so I keep myself alive too.
One month ago, my father passed away in Chico, California where he was hired to work as their Head G.I (gastrointestinal….or as my dad liked to call it “guts and butts”) Doctor. He had only worked there for eighteen short months. It was a small slice out of his life. The hospital had invited my siblings and I to attend a memorial in his honor last week. I headed up there with my younger brother. We drove ten hours there and ten hours back. I was not happy about this trip. Mostly I was scared to go back to the very place my father died. I thought about the trip as a huge inconvenience and concerned it would set me back into a dark place. I kept making excuses in my head why I should cancel the trip. After all, the Chico folks hardly knew my father. What was the point? But at the same time, I felt as though I needed to go out of respect for my dad. He would have wanted me to go. So I went. Begrudgingly, I went.
Little did I know, I would be learning the greatest lesson about who my father truly was, and how important it is to “look a person in the eye when speaking to them,” as my father always told us.
My brother and I checked into the same hotel that my father stayed in those eighteen months. Without a beat, upon arriving, the hotel clerk said, “You must be Dr. Shallman’s children, you look just like him.” They continued to tell us how much they adored my father. How they had so many people coming in and out of the hotel, with some guests staying for two or three months at a time, but they had never come across anyone quite like Dr. Shallman. One clerk had said, “Many guests come and leave, and they never pay attention to us, but your father knew all of us by name. He spoke to all of us like we were the most important people in the world.” Tears swelled as one by one each clerk came out to welcome us to Chico with emotion and warmth.
We arrived at his memorial. Again, I was most shocked by the welcome. The room was filled with sixty or more people. Beautiful pictures of my father with his children and grandchildren were propped up on a table with rose petals, and a large white screen had our pictures floating on the wall with music playing. They lead us to the front. On stage sat a gentleman holding a guitar. He played “Happy trails to you until we meet again…” and sang a few other numbers that left my brother and I over emotional with tears.
The ceremony was filled with so many stories, and so many people sharing their memories. But here’s what surprised me the most, everyone that addressed the crowd and spoke about my father cried with great pain and anguish. Their loss was very real. These doctors and nurses see death and illness every day. They deal with loss on a regular basis. They only knew my father for eighteen short months, but their grief was raw, and it was authentic. They all said to have been so impacted by his greatness, by his sense of humor and by his calm and intentional composure that they all said his presence had brought them so much laughter and that knowing him made them better physicians, and better nurses.
One story in particular that was told by a nurse filled my heart with great understanding of who my father was and what made him so likeable. It was Thanksgiving weekend. No one liked to work on Thanksgiving, and my father was new to Enloe Hospital. He arrived in his sweet humble quiet way and gently asked one of the nurses to fill an order. The nurse was in a tizzy and overwhelmed by her workload and by the fact that her holiday was being disrupted. She yelled at my father and said “I’ll get to it soon, can’t you see I’m swamped here?!” My father was quite taken aback by her over-emotional rude response and stared at her in shock. A few minutes later, my father turned the corner to make a call on his cell phone. The nurse’s phone rang and she picked it up. “Hello,” my father said, “Could you page Dr. Seymour Butts, please?” The nurse was in such a state of agitation, that she hadn’t realized the obvious practical joke being played on her and started paging Dr. Seymour Butts on the loud speaker. After several minutes, disturbed and unstrung, and unable to reach “Dr. Seymour Butts”, she picked up the phone and replied, “I’m sorry but Dr. Seymour Bu-….” A smile crept on to her face as she realized what was happening. My father winked at the other nurses, everyone laughed, and Thanksgiving became a fun holiday filled with high morale and a change of pace the nursing staff had yet to have participated in. As this particular nurse recounted after telling over this story, “It was a love affair with Dr. Shallman ever since.”
My dad never took himself too seriously, and he always managed to keep life light and fun even in the most daunting of circumstances. Even with sick patients, which is why he could wag his chubby finger at his most beloved patient who was a double amputee and say, “Mrs. Smith, you don’t have a leg to stand on,” and completely get away with it. It’s no wonder the night my family arrived in Chico to say goodbye to my father, his attending nurse said, “It was a privilege taking care of your father. He treated everyone the same, and he will be missed.” This was the same response that everyone told us over and over. Security guards, orderlies, nurses, doctors, even hotel clerks. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me writing about him over and over. I know the people in Chico won’t mind it.
I hope this Rosh Hashanah, we all learn to laugh out loud at our mistakes and our shortcomings, and realize that life is too short to create unnecessary drama by dwelling on our imperfections rather than embracing them for what they are, necessary life lessons. May we all have a sweet new year filled with laughter, honey, and good food. And as my father would say continually throughout his lifetime, “It ain’t rocket science. Now let’s eat.”