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Completing the Circle

I’ve had some powerful experiences in the past two weeks. Some would call them synchronicities. Others would call them mere coincidences. Whatever they were, they gave me a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of being remembered even though I am (I think) too much of a skeptic to believe my father is sending me messages from the great beyond.

The night before what would have been Dad’s 97th birthday, I was flooded with reminiscences of prior celebrations, memories I captured in Birthdays Remembered. His actual birthday was a travel day, filled with last-minute details and a losing battle to cram nine days worth of clothing into a carry-on.

Around 1 p.m., I wrote an email message to my three brothers: I know we all know what today is. I’m sure we’re remembering it in our own ways. I can’t think of Dad’s birthday without thinking of all of you, and I wish we were together somehow. But I am with you in spirit and somehow, I think Mom and Dad are with US in spirit.

A few minutes later, I received an unexpected call from Kline Memorials, the company that was creating a monument for my father’s, mother’s and sister’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery. Back in September, we completed some forms requesting approval for its installation from Arlington. Kline’s representative told me that the granite marker had just been installed. On Dad’s birthday.

After my trip to the Northwest, I side tripped to see (or as I liked to say, “meet”) a piece of art that I asked an artist-friend to create a painting as a way to remember and honor not only my father, but my mother. After Dad resided for so many years in a bedroom in my home, I needed to reclaim that space, to remove the telltale signs of Dad’s final weeks, to re-imagine it as a welcoming space for guests and a sanctuary for me.

That’s asking a lot of a painting.

What this very personal memorial is not is an attempt at “closure.” I’m not trying to conclude anything, least of all my relationship with my father. He and I had no unfinished business.

A painting was a way to literally put myself back in the picture with my mother and father, at a time when our security was both threatened (by my father’s heart disease) and protected (by their fierce brand of love and family loyalty).

My artist-friend followed my journey with Dad long before I thought about asking her to create a painting. Though she was inspired by a bit of free verse I wrote for her last spring, The Kingdom of the Wing Chair, I immediately saw details that she had pulled from past blog posts and conversations. Books of his favorite poets, for example, sit on a shelf behind the central image, a wing chair.

Since my verse had mentioned that a Spaniel was often seated next to Dad’s chair, she decided to include a Springer Spaniel. My Dad always loved Springers, great family dogs with good noses for hunting upland birds. Our first was Boot, an unusually large male with a head shaped like an anvil, who was just as hard-headed. Boot was followed by two litter mates, Katie and Beall. The dog in the painting looked just like Beall, with her white “feathers” extending from her legs and her eyes locked on to a spot where Dad would sit.

Only I never mentioned a Springer in my verse, just a Spaniel. My friend took the liberty of including a Springer because she needed a pattern to balance the bold green and red solids in the painting.

When we went to dinner, I asked her about the meaning of a gold ring tied to a string and hung from the book shelf so that it dangled next to the chair. “That was to put your mother in the picture,” she told me. She used the iconic image of a gold band since she didn’t know what my mother’s wedding ring looked like.

“You mean like this?” I asked. From my left hand, I removed a thin gold band I’ve been wearing since Dad died. The inside is engraved, “E.D.C. to H.S.C. 26 Dec. ’41.”

We talked about how painting is more than a one-way conversation.

“It’s a circle,” she said. “And the circle is only completed when the viewer brings their experience to it.”

Circles don’t need to close, and they are never broken.

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My brother Dean took Dad home


Of my three brothers, Dean is closest in age to me, just three years older. As he explained in his remarks at yesterday’s memorial, he and I knew the kinder, gentler version of Dad. Dad used to say that he and Mom raised Scott and Bruce, but he let us raise ourselves. I’m not sure that’s quite true, but he did perhaps trust the process more than he did when he was first a father. Here are Dean’s remarks:

“I would like to thank you all for coming today to help us remember and celebrate the life of my father, Henry Snively Campbell. I know he would be and, I like to think, is very pleased to see all of your familiar and beloved faces. I imagine his broad smile, and the warm greeting he would extend to all of you. On his behalf, I welcome you.

Today each of my siblings and I are sharing a few fragments of our memories of and love for our father. In some respects, my sister and I experienced a different father figure than did our two older brothers, so different in age were Betsy and I than they were.  Scott and Bruce knew the fiery, hard-charging, career-oriented Marine officer, a decorated WWII veteran who aspired to the Commandant’s mansion in Washington D.C., whereas Betsy and I were raised by a less rigid and more compassionate father. I believe that two events led him to re-balance his life outlook: the loss of his 4 year old daughter Midgie to leukemia in 1953; and his heart attack in 1962 that led to his premature retirement from the Marine Corps. I think these events made him re-consider what was most important to him in life; and it’s clear he decided it was his family.

My first memory of my father dates to the latter part of his Marine Corps service, during his post as Executive Officer at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC. I was about 4 or 5 years old at the time. Each Friday during the summer, an Evening Parade is held on the grounds within the barracks; the Exec is the parade commander, the conductor, if you will. In my memory of those parades, I see a marine platoon in spotless dress uniform, flawlessly conducting their silent drill with M-1 rifles, fixed bayonets gleaming in the twilight. The President’s Own Marine Band plays John Phillip Sousa. My father stands at the center, calling for the precise maneuvers in his full-throated, commanding voice.  You can imagine the impression that made on a 5 year old boy. He seemed about ten feet tall to me back then.

As I grew older, I naturally came to know him differently and more realistically, but the legacy of his Marine career was still much in evidence. He carried himself with an unmistakable grace and military bearing. He dressed smartly, and he spoke with authority, confidence, and courtesy. He modeled, more than he taught, the values and behaviors expected of a Marine, an officer, and a gentleman: respect; integrity; honor; courage; and commitment. I realize now more than I did during my childhood and adolescence that I tried to emulate him.  It was in this way that he taught me how I might become a man, poor student though I was.

Some of my most enduring adult memories of my father are of the times we spent together in his native eastern Washington, hunting chukar partridge in the hills high above the Columbia River near Bridgeport. The images are clear to me, as though they happened yesterday. This is my memory: on crisp fall mornings while it is still dark, we drive under bright stars from the river to the top of plateau, and out across the wheat stubble fields to our destination. We strike out before sunrise into the arid grass- and sage-covered land adjoining the cultivated fields. At the very edge of the Columbia gorge, we walk in the mist of early morning fog as it is driven off by the light breeze coming from the plateau. We move in silence, the only sounds coming from the snuffling dog working in front of us, and the crunching of the frosted grasses beneath our boots. The pungent smell of sage hangs in the cool morning air.  As the sun rises behind us in the eastern sky, we pause to stand at the precipice, looking out over the majestic expanse of the Columbia River gorge that spreads before us.  The hills across the river, many miles away, turn from dark to purple to tan as the sun climbs from the horizon. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that makes one feel humble and quite insignificant. I will always carry the memory of these mornings we spent together; and for me, he will live on within them.

I was truly fortunate to have been with my father in his final hours. The night before his passing, he was too weak to come to the table for dinner, even in his wheel chair – so Betsy and I brought our dinner into his room. We set up a card table in front of his recliner, squeezed in next to him, and had a quiet time together. In retrospect, he was clearly starting to fade, although Betsy and I did not realize at the time how close he was to the end.  He was very sleepy during dinner, and seemed to be in a waking dream state: still connected to the physical world around him, but clearly seeing and responding to other things as well.  As we sat together, he looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, “Dean, will you drive?”. This caught me a bit off-guard, but I responded that of course I would. I wish now that I had had the wits to ask him where he wanted to go, but I did not. Afterwards, my first thought was that in his mind he thought we were sitting in our camper on one of our hunting trips, and that he wanted me to drive because he was too tired to carry on. What I’ve now come to believe is something else. In the few days preceding his passing, he was often restless and wakeful during the night, trying to get out of bed, even though he had become too weak and short of breath to walk on his own. Our hospice nurse told Betsy and me that such restlessness is fairly common, and offered the belief that perhaps those close to death know they have somewhere they need to go, and are so determined to get there they will get up out of bed and walk right out the front door if you aren’t watching over them. Today when I look back on my father’s words, I think he knew it was time for him to leave, and that he wanted me to drive him there. I think he was asking me to take him home.”

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