Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.
The last times that I saw my father were the three days after I woke him on his 51st birthday. I had walked up Sixth Street from the Greyhound Station and I startled him awake as I crossed our apartment through the living room. He didn’t know that I was coming, and stood in his white boxers and undershirt framed by open double doors of what may once have been the parlor, but which he now used as his bedroom. I had decided on impulse to take the bus home that spring break. I don’t remember why I hadn’t warned him; no time for a letter and neither of us felt he could afford the phone. I do remember my guilt telling a panhandler in the Port Authority Terminal that I couldn’t spare a quarter and feeling the relief of truth when I climbed off the bus in Topeka that 6 am with a dime left in my pocket.
We spent that day and the next talking about what my sister should do and the day after that going to Kansas City to tell her what we had decided. Which advice, as I recall, she appropriately ignored. Then my dad took me to the old Greyhound Terminal at 12th and Walnut, where, surrounded by the Army recruits and draftees in their fresh dress greens coming from and going to Fort Leonard Wood or Viet Nam, he bought me a bus ticket with a hundred bucks that had, through some oversight, survived his last bankruptcy. He gave me 10 dollars of the change for the trip and kept another ten for himself to get through the next week. And I remember my selfish feelings wanting more.
Two and a half months later as I prepared to take my exams and about a week before graduating, I found a note on my dorm door to make a collect call to an Aunt in Connecticut, my grandmother’s youngest sister. She told me that my father had dropped dead that morning.
It seemed that his neighbor, who shared a bathroom wall with my father that was so thin you could not flush without sharing the moment, thought she had heard him and then a thump as she was getting ready for church. When she returned from church she had knocked on our door and when she couldn’t rouse my dad had called the police, who found him on the bathroom floor. The coroner said that he had had a heart attack.
Dean Seymour loaned me a plane fare out of his emergency funds; a friend, Bruce Lawder saw to it that my stuff was put in the dormitory storage, and my sister and I converged on Topeka to make funeral arrangements and close the apartment. We found he had hocked the Studebaker to get $100 to drive himself to my graduation and another $100 for my present. Fortunately much my parents’ stuff had been consolidated two years before after my mother’s death, when we had to sell the house and reduce its contents to what would fit into four rooms. After the bankruptcy my mother’s work had met the mortgage payments until her death. The irony was that they had had mortgage life insurance on my dad but not on her.
I had hung around for six months after her death before returning to Dartmouth in January of 1964. My sister had graduated from high school in the spring of ’64 and moved to Kansas City to work for Hall Mark Cards, so my dad had been alone a year.
I have little memory of the funeral, which was attended by maybe a dozen people; we received a flag because he was a Navy vet. My sister and I decided to send his body to the Kansas University Medical School, she was 19, I was 23, and we didn’t know how too find a cemetery plot or head stone, tasks that now seem trivial, but at the time were overwhelming. And, I don’t know how to say this to myself, because we, or at any rate, I thought it would give his life some value. I was to young to know he would have said we were the value of his life.
The University of Kansas must have told me about his burial, but I don’t remember it. About 15 years ago, before attending a conference in Kansas City, I did write the Medical School and they sent me the location of his grave in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas: Section 12, row 19, grave C, and, on my way to the airport for my flight home, I found the cemetery, but could not solve the maze to find his grave.
This fall I had a second chance to find my father’s grave. This time I had support. Andrea and I took a weekend trip to Topeka for ceremony bestowing a post humus honor on a high school teacher who had profoundly affected my life. This trip I was able, through the Medical School, to contact the Lawrence Department of Parks and Recreation, which is responsible for the cemetery. The caretaker said he would hang a map on his office door because it would be closed when we arrived on Saturday.
This time, with the map’s highlighted help, I found the grave with ease; I was almost drawn to it. But I doubted that the stone, which only said KUMC 1967 and was almost covered by Bermuda grass, was the right one, until the names on the surrounding graves, which were the same as those noted on the map, confirmed its location. At Andrea’s suggestion, in a Jewish tradition, we each found a stone to put on the grave. A tradition that is, I suppose, a ritual that remains from building cairns to protect a body from hyenas. My sister and I have decided we will mark his grave have his name, Ralph Daniel Smith, and year of birth, 1914, chiseled in the granite and by that naming complete a circle began when my dad named us. I owe these understandings to the support and encouragement that I have received from David and the worship committee to make my search. My father was no failure merely baffled, as I am, by what the world seems to demand as success. To release him from those demands is to release myself.