It was four years ago today, November 23, 2009, that Richard (Dick) Gardner died after a protracted and complicated combination of illnesses. He left this realm exactly the way he wanted to, surrounded by the family he so dearly loved, and I wanted to remember him today with one of several loving tributes read at his funeral – the one I wrote to honor the man and the memory.
Dick and I were married for nearly fifteen years and best friends for almost thirty more, and there was never a day that went by that we didn’t care deeply about each other. He was loved by a lot of people and it’s easy to understand why. He was a caring and sensitive person, genuinely interested in others, and never, in the 45 years I knew him, said a bad thing about anyone.
Among his many wonderful qualities was the uncommon ability to overlook – and to forgive.
Over the course of his last two years different people said, “His legacy will live on,” “He was there for me when I needed him,” “he’s a good man.” And he was all these things – all of his life. Many of us here today were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to tell him what his presence in our lives meant.
We told him goodbye.
Most people don’t get that chance even once. Let alone twice.
He liked those accolades so much that he went through the final goodbye two more times. After the unbelievable recovery from his stroke a couple of months ago, an aide he was particularly attached to affectionately nicknamed him “Lazarus.”
But each time we said goodbye, “Lazarus” fought his way back, surprising his doctors and surpassing a number of benchmarks he’d set for himself – seeing the spring flowers bloom “once more,” waiting for the outcome of a landmark presidential election, watching last year’s playoff games “just one more time,” attending Tana’s wedding. For the first two days of his last week his focus became Kearsti’s senior pictures – he wanted desperately to be able to see them, then had me bring them back twice to look at them “once more.” To remain connected.
As his condition worsened, the Ohio State / Michigan game took precedence. Again he fought his way out of his deathbed to watch 15 minutes of the game on the television, his hand resting on Rick’s because he was so happy to share these final “game moments” with him, just as they did every year. Once Ohio State scored their first touchdown – it was enough.
He was like a modern day Superman. Maybe he couldn’t fly, but it seemed he often was flying – high on life, even in times of despair. But even Superman had his rock of Kryptonite, and Dick finally succumbed to his.
According to the staff at Briarwood, amazed by the number of people who trekked in and out of Dick’s room on a nearly daily basis, “he got more visitors than anyone else.”
We don’t need to ask why.
And in Dick’s final couple of days, many of the people who had taken care of him at Briarwood stopped by his room to tell him goodbye, expressing their feelings about the kind of man he was, patting him on the arm, brushing his hair back from his face, rubbing the top of his foot. They talked about his smile, his humor.
“It was a privilege to care for him,” they told us, “an honor to know him.”
We will all miss him. Jeff – his father’s constancy and patience, their long talks, his longing to see “one last time” the home he and Jeff shared for so long. Laura – the love of literature, books, writing she and her father shared, and Rick, the love of sports and family history. Not a one of us gathered here to remember him is unfamiliar with Dick’s humor, his intellect, his keen interest in science and history, the long talks that revolved around literature and poetry. He loved words and read everything from Kingsolver, Wordsworth, and Merwin to Hawking and Shakespeare – which he especially enjoyed, and missed reading to his dear friend, Mae.
We will miss the conversation, the reflective moments, his nostalgia for the past, the special brand of humor he showered on everyone and characterized by our children as “Dad” jokes. We will miss his gentle reminders that we are all human, after all, and no better or worse than anyone else.
“Anyway,” he said more than once, “we’re all in the same boat – none of are going to get out of this world alive.”
But he wasn’t afraid to die. In February 2008 when things looked so grim, he said, “I used to think I’d be afraid, but oddly, I’m not.” And he wasn’t.
Dick gave us all many moments that we will carry with us always. Moments to cherish, moments to strengthen us, moments to reflect and consider. Moments of laughter – and tears. And it is these we will remember when we think of him. Even though words may sometimes fail us, the feelings and the memories never will.
This is the legacy he left for each of us. These things were the source of his strength – and where we must find ours. As long as we do, we’ll know that Dick – Dad – Grandpa – is not gone, for “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
– “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth