At the funeral of my father — a surgeon in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — his former secretary came up to me in tears, gave me a warm hug, and said, “Your father was the most wonderful person I knew.” This kind of shocked me, because my memories of Dad were not, for the most part, wonderful. Yet here was this obese middle-aged woman blithering about how many poor people my father had helped — without any hope of being paid; how he had personally told her not to send medical bills to patients he knew to be penniless.
Yet my impression of Dad, as I grew up, was that my father liked birds better than people — perhaps because his earliest experiences of the human race were rather negative. He was an only child; his mother was a spoiled, peevish society girl from Mainline Philadelphia. From what my mother told me about her mother-in-law… poor Dad.
Yet in many ways Dad had it good. He was smart, athletic — and, as you can see from this photo of him at Haverford College — very good-looking.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania medical school, where my mother was his classmate, he went to Liberia as a missionary doctor for a few years. Below we see Dad in Liberia, relaxing on a hammock in the jungle. He would need all the rest he could get, because when he came back to the States, life got hectic.
During Dad’s career as a surgeon, I remember the phone ringing in the wee hours, between midnight and 4:00 AM, and minutes later, footsteps on the stairs, the back door slamming, the old VW starting and accelerating out the driveway. Usually it was an emergency appendectomy, which requires slicing into the abdomen of a total stranger and delicately removing up to half a pound of stinky mess. In my imagination, the human race must have looked to my father like armies of the walking dead — a bunch of rotting organs, walking on two legs, keeping him from sleep.
The woman he married — my mother, as luck would have it — was six inches taller than he, which I’m pretty sure was stressful for him. Mom was a frustrated, emotionally unstable medical school graduate who bore him six frustrated, emotionally unstable children — each of which represented, to Dad, an endless river of frustration and emotional instability.
I later learned that I, the third of the lot, was the last “planned pregnancy” in the family. My younger three siblings were all kind of “oops,” thanks to my father’s insatiable libido. Nonetheless, older children always thought the younger ones got the best of everything, while the younger ones complained of having to wear hand-me-down clothes. The sibling rivaly got nasty.
By now, I think you get the picture. For my father, people were — in general — a drag.
Birds, on the other hand, didn’t complain — except for crows, whose loud caws awakened us many mornings on the farm where I grew up. Birds, unlike Mom, didn’t bitch and moan; they made songs delightful to the soul. Birds, unlike my siblings and me, didn’t walk on my father’s newly-seeded lawn or his newly-planted vegetable garden, then track mud on the carpet.
No, birds twittered in the trees, and flew over our heads in flocks and swoops and barrel rolls. Birds were fun. Especially barn swallows, which were precision-flying prodigies. Crows were a pain in the ass, with their cacophonies and sneak attacks on the corn, so in their case my father made an exception to his Quaker pacifism and shot them with his .22 rifle. He would then leave their bodies to rot next to the corn field, a warning to their fellows.
As referenced in an earlier post here—“Lifelong Learning”—my father never said “I love you” to me until the last time I saw him. For my father, I think, love equaled sex, and was therefore inappropriate for children. According to my mother, who after my father’s death felt a need to share personal details with all who would listen, Dad was a sex machine. Mom told my sister, “Your father’s hands were everwhere.” Mom and Dad didn’t stop having weekly or biweekly sex until he had a disabling stroke.
So, to recap, here is Dad’s list so far:
People – a drag.
Birds – good, except for crows.
Sex – great!
Dad also loved gardening. Coming home from a ten-or-twelve-or-fourteen-hour day at the hospital, he made a beeline straight to his vegetable garden, which was a meditation on chaos. Rows of vegetable plants could best be found among the waist-high weeds by looking for little piles of stones that Dad put at the end of each row, the plan being that Dad would later cart the stones off to another location. (That rarely happened.)
Dad also marked rows of vegetables with random sticks of scrap material: broken dowel rods; bent metal tubing from umbrellas; short PVC pipes; plastic forks; straws from McDonald’s milkshakes; remnants of smashed kite frames; and scraps of aluminum conduit.
On our gentleman’s farm, nothing went to waste. Actually we can add to the list of things Dad loved: random stuff. My father could throw, would throw, did throw nothing away. He was a textbook example of a pack rat. Dad was remarkable for his obdurate inability to part with any object in his possession, no matter how trivial or apparently worthless. He filled every available space in every building of our farm with random stuff, initially organized in stacks, piles, cartons, or bins, but increasingly demonstrative of the second law of thermodynamics: everything in the physical universe tends towards entropy.
The first designated storage area for family flotsam and jetsam was our basement, which Dad quickly filled with plastic bottles and paper cups that could be used for gardening purposes; boxes of assorted plumbing parts; boxes of used medical supplies (rubber gloves, disposable scalpels, syringes, and medicine bottles); varieties of string and twine; varieties of plastic, paper, and burlap bags; and stacks of magazines, organized by date, and sometimes even tied together with strings: National Geographic, Scientific American, Time, Ramparts, the Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Once our basement was full, the overflow rose to our attic; from there to the hog pen attached to the back of our garage; and thence to the pigeon roost above the hog pen. Spillover piles, stacks, and boxes of debris flowed into a chicken house with an improvised greenhouse attached, made of scrap lumber and plastic sheeting. From there, everything with which my father could not part took refuge in our 4,000-square-foot barn, crowding out cows, sheep, and the occasional horse.
By the time Dad passed away, physical evidence of his unresolved psychological issues had choked every flat surface of more than 20,000 square feet of house, barn, and outbuildings.
After the funeral, my older brother Jim began the sad task of carting Dad’s
memorabilia by the truckload to a pit in a cornfield for cremation. Columns of smoke rose above our farm for weeks.
At a memorial service for Dad, brother Jim produced an epitimous example of Dad’s obsession with stuff: a small bottle, with a small note inside, in our father’s neat handwriting: “Hole in bottom.” Sure enough, the bottle had a tiny hole in its bottom.
Don’t we all.
But I would be remiss were I to not mention a whole other side of Dad.
In my early forties and living in Mission Hills, California, I came down with a mysterious rash that started on my foot and spread quickly up my leg. I also had a fever and felt completely exhausted. I went to a local doctor assigned to me by Blue Cross HMO. The doctor ran tests and X-rays, diagnosed me with pneumonia, and prescribed a wide-spectrum antibiotic. I called Dad to update him. He asked about my symptoms. I told him. He expressed doubt as to the diagnosis. He told me to check and write down my temperature every four to eight hours for the next twenty-four hours, which I did. When I reported back to him that my fever had gone from 100 to 101.5 in two shallow waves, he said, “God damn it, you don’t have pneumonia. You have mononucleosis! Go back and tell that doctor to run blood tests for mono.” I did, and sure enough, I had the Epstein-Barr virus with infectious mononucleosis.
My father had correctly diagnosed me over the phone, sight unseen, from three thousand miles away. He was good. Very good. At being a doctor, anyway.
At Dad’s funeral, fellow physicians stood up at the eulogy (held in the chapel of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) and sang his praises. My father was a consummate professional, the most skilled surgeon they had ever known, even though he was “a pack-ratter,” one friend called him.
When I went shopping in a local supermarket and I showed my I.D., the cashier’s eyes got big: “Oh! Are you Dr. Mears’s son?” She explained that my father had saved her daughter’s life. More visits to local businesses throughout my life have yielded similar stories; Dad had saved their mother’s life, or their son’s or daughter’s life, or their friend’s or husband’s life. Often at one, two, or three o’clock in the morning. And often without being able to pay. And as I was told by Connie, his medical secretary, that when it came time to collect from the poor, Dad told his office staff, “They don’t have insurance. They can’t afford the bill. Let it go.”
Because Dad did not use draconian methods to collect medical fees, our family was always a little short of cash, and my father drove a used Volkswagon beetle and wore the same suit five or six days a week. In spite of that, he put five of his six children through university. In my case, I think it was especially difficult for him, because he thought my choice of university—Maharishi International University, a kind of experimental New Age college where the curriculum was all centered around the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—was a big mistake. But he paid my tuition and never once complained. (I only found out that he didn’t agree with my choice of schools after he passed away, when my little brother Bill told me.)
My father, an agnostic Quaker, was one of the only liberal doctors in the staunchly conservative Republican city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was among the first people I knew to oppose the Vietnam war, to support civil rights and environmental causes, to practice recycling, and to advocate for socialized medicine. Our family donated the use of our station wagon to civil rights workers traveling to Selma, Alabama. When I got stranded after an anti-Vietnam-War march in Washington, D.C., Dad drove through the night to give me a ride home, because he believed in the march and in peace, even though he had to see patients at 7:00 AM the next morning.
Dad was, by some measures, a terrible father. He was cold, remote, impatient, scornful, and often violent. I remember him whipping me with the thin branches of apple trees, and I remember Dad chasing my older brother Jim around the farm and hurling wedges of scrap lumber at him after Jim accidentally let the cows into the sweet corn patch.
But my father saved dozens, probably hundreds of lives — maybe more — and he was one of the most sincere believers in education, environmental preservation, organic gardening, and open-mindedness–and in every case he practiced his beliefs with firm resolve. In spite of his violent temper and inherited peevishness, I saw him always trying to be gentle, kind, generous, understanding, and well-informed, never rushing to judgment, never forming opinions that were not merited by solid data.
This Father’s Day, I thank Dr. Frank Kennedy Mears, Jr. for giving me life; for supporting my education at a really weird university; for serving as a positive role model in many ways; and for teaching me core values I now hold close to my heart, as I hold him in my memory and in my gratitude–in part because he loved my mother, and proved it in one of the most sincere ways possible: with geriatric sex.