Clippings: A celebration of a life well lived

My dad died Christmas morning. In November he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It was also in his bones and spreading. He came to terms with it quickly. He was ready. He had lived a good life, he felt, one that had lasted longer than he ever expected. My sister, Torri, and brother, Todd, and I tried hard to match the peace and grace and acceptance he showed.
I began calling him every couple of days instead of the usual once a week. He mostly wanted to talk about me and my family and about Torri and Todd and their kids. He laughed his big, easy laugh. He was famous for it. He said it felt good to laugh. We also talked about his illness and what was to come. End of life care was an important issue for him, especially since my mom’s death 15 years ago. He didn’t want to endure more doctor visits, more tests or experimental treatments. He wanted just to be comfortable in his own home and he hoped I could accept his wishes. How could I not? My dad, probably the most thoughtful and compassionate man I have ever known, wanted to die with dignity and with peace. With tears hot on my cheeks I spoke into the phone and said, “Of course. I understand.”
I went to visit him in Minnesota for Thanksgiving. My sister and brother and I spent a few hours every day talking with him about his life. He asked me to take notes for his obituary. Robert (Bob) Vernon Campbell grew up an only child in northern Minnesota. As a boy he had a pet dog named Sammy. At 14 he got a summer job as a dock boy at a fishing resort on Lake Kabetogama. He had a pet squirrel there one summer. He used his first earnings to buy a Whizzer motorbike so he could get to and from his piano lessons in the next town over. He also worked a job as an oiler on one of the big iron ore mining shovels. He skipped his senior year at Eveleth High School and enrolled at Carleton College. One of his roommates was Alfred August, the first black man he had ever known. His friendship with Alfred awakened him for the first time to bigotry and discrimination. He couldn’t comprehend it. After college my dad joined the army, where he studied Turkish. He got stationed with the NSA but never talked much about what he did. He did teach me that “farketmez” is Turkish for “it doesn’t matter.” He married my mom, Pat, while he was in the Army and enrolled in law school when he got out. His first job as an attorney was defending his office’s cleaning lady. He earned two silver dollars for the job.
In 1968 Minnesota Gov. Harold LeVander appointed him to an open seat as a district court judge in Duluth. He was well respected for his commitment to justice, fairness and equality, for his creativity, for his humility and compassion and for the respect he showed everyone in his courtroom. He stood up for the rights of domestic abuse victims, juveniles, the mentally ill and chemically dependent and those under child protection. At a time when those people didn’t have a voice, he gave them one. He was instrumental in establishing the Arrowhead Juvenile Detention Center and Duluth’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, which became a well-respected model around the world. He took little credit for his work, instead he was just proud to be around when important changes were made to the system.
I filled up many pages of a legal notepad while listening to my dad’s stories and my heart was broken as I stuffed those pages into my suitcase to fly back to Vermont after Thanksgiving. I made plans to return with my family sometime in January, but on the Friday before Christmas I got a call that things had taken a quick turn for the worse. A couple of hours later I was on my way back to Minnesota. In the dark hum of the plane I kept playing a scene from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” over and over in my head. In it George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) decides to head over to his younger brother’s high school graduation dance, but before he leaves he sits down with his father at the dining room table. They chat about the future and about George’s desire to move away, to find bigger things. There is a moment’s silence, which is filled with a lifetime’s worth of unsaid things. Finally George turns to his dad and says, “Pop, do you want a shock? I think you’re a great guy.” A few hours later George’s dad was dead.
I hoped I would have the opportunity to say the same thing to my dad that George Bailey said to his. And not because he set such a great example behind the bench, but because he set such a great example as a son, as a husband, as a member of his community and as a father. He was loving and thoughtful and compassionate and generous and kind and interesting and caring and strong and adventurous and hopeful and funny and smart and wise and open and humble.
My dad had about three good days after I arrived. He was able to visit with or talk with his family and friends. We toasted his life with champagne. He completely, and with great vigor, enjoyed his last popsicle. And he laughed his great laugh. As an old family friend said, while fighting back tears, “It’s not sad, it’s a celebration.” And at some point during the celebration I leaned in close and said, “Hey, Dad, you’re a great guy.” Ever humble, even at the end, he denied it. Torri, Todd and I overruled him.

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