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My father was a man of legends. As the stories go Richard (Dick) Haldane Sperry was:

  • A star sportsman who sacrificed his pro golf career for the sake of his family. Dick felt that the touring would be too hard on a young wife and multiple baby daughters, and, thus, quit despite the trophies on shelves and mantles that testified to his talent and the highlight moments of rubbing elbows with the greats such as introducing Arnold Palmer to his wife.
  • An up and coming business man. As a strong proponent of Dale Carnegie’s Secrets for Success, Dick quickly climbed the corporate ladder and won many friends and influenced people along the way. The stories told to my sisters and me portrayed our father as a leader among men. Dick clinched the deals and advanced others in their careers as was evident by the amount of gray flannel suits who insisted we call them Uncle. The man we called Grandpa was the president of the company that hired our father after his cancer was deemed inoperable. Legend has it that Dick took a risk to search for new employment, for more money and better insurance benefits for his family when he learned that he was going to die. The man we called Grandpa Johnson hired him based on Dick’s promise that he would increase profits by a certain percentage within the estimated two years that he had left to live. Grandpa and Grandma Johnson told us countless stories about our father’s bravery and gallantry, saying again and again that they “loved him like a son,” and, so, remained important in our lives long after our father’s death.
  • A tragic hero who battled a monster molecular melanoma with experimental treatments. In the early 60’s there was little information about cancer. The surgeon general just issued the first report on the connection between cigarette smoking and disease in 1964, and it wasn’t until 1966, the year my father died, that “Warning: cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health” was printed on the side of the package. Although Dick was not a big smoker and quit when he determined that it cost too much money, he was diagnosed with skin cancer that had metastasized to the lungs at a time when cancer equaled death. There was no cure. So, as the story goes, he gave his body to science by signing on to work with a progressive Dr. Li of Nassau Hospital, Long Island as a guinea pig for cobalt treatments and a new “vaccine”.
  • A spiritual warrior with a strong faith in God. Our father’s faith was evidenced by our family’s daily prayer practices of grace before meals and kneeling before bed at night, as well as our weekly attendance at church, and by the Sunday school class Dick taught after he was diagnosed. Yet, the strongest piece of concrete proof we have of our father’s belief in God is the treatise on life that he wrote on his death-bed.

As I understand this story, the treatise entitled “What is the Use?” was dictated to a nurse after Dick came out of a long coma. Upon finishing the piece, he lapsed back into a coma and died six months later. My sisters and I believe that the writing is divinely inspired, that our father met with angels on the other side, and then returned to leave a legacy of divine guidance for us. The single page document of eight short paragraphs in a script-like typeface is framed and hanging in our homes as well as memorized and oft quoted by the four of us. It begins with a recognition that this effort will alarm Dick’s loved ones since the gesture to “summarize opinions on life” might imply that he’s quitting the battle, but he makes no apology for needing to “clearly express (his) view on living.”

God is love. (This is sure)” he tells us, and then proceeds to delineate the qualities of a “life (that) has been well lived.” After enumerating character traits to strive for such as purpose, daring, perseverance, focus, and self understanding, he concludes that “one (can) know the correct way to think and act” by studying the life of Jesus. “Understand His way and life will be a magnificent adventure.

Chiseled in our father’s rose-colored gravestone under Richard Haldane Sperry, 1933 – 1966, are the final words of his treatise: A Magnificent Adventure; and I do believe that was his experience. I need to believe that his words were inspired, that his life was Christ-like in its impact and brevity; and that all the legends of his wisdom, bravery, and generosity were true.

The last time I saw my father alive, he was frail in a white undershirt and boxer shorts, and in the thralls of a paralytic seizure. I discovered him. He was stiff as a plank, convulsing, and gurgling, “Marti,” in an attempt to call my mom for help. I fetched my mom and ran for help from our neighbors, then stood at a distance to watch the ambulance with its screeching red light take him away. The last image I have of my dad is of a slender, pale, and lifeless young man in a casket. I was eight. My sisters were six, five, and two. The legends, the heroic stories, are vital for breathing a powerful life into the father of our child minds.

As an adult, as a flawed human still striving for those estimable qualities, it has been equally important for me to meet a life-sized version of my father. The moments in therapy when I had insights into his humanity, the few hints at his fallibility dropped by my mom have helped to liberate me from larger-than-life expectations of myself; and, yet, for the most part, I’ve still relished the glowing eulogy of my father’s life story.

Then, in May 2009 in the thick of my healing journey, my mother’s birthday present for me was to meet me halfway for lunch. I drove an hour and a half from New York, she drove almost two hours from her home in central Connecticut, and we enjoyed a nutritious heart-to-heart conversation over large salads. It was the best birthday present ever, and, at the end of our precious time together, my mom gave me, among other gifts, a letter written by my father.

It took me a few days to find the right time and space, free of responsibilities, to read the letter as I was fully prepared to weep buckets; and I did weep, but I was also sobered by the gift. There, in a yellowed envelope addressed to C.V. (Grandpa) Johnson, were three pages of crude lined stationery. The handwriting was tight and forward slanting, the words evenly spaced and the lines double-spaced indicating the care the author took to be legible to the reader. The penmanship was imperfect, there were punctuation mistakes and misspellings, there were scribbled out errors and corrections. At first glance, it seemed written by a teenager or older child.

Upon reading, it became clear that the letter was written while Dick was in the hospital, awaiting the first injection of Dr. Li’s vaccine. The letter is a thank you note and begins: “What do you say to a man who has lifted you up when you are down and close to out? I know one thing for sure, I don’t have the words in my vocabulary to completely express the gratitude my Family and I feel for the helping hand.” As he believed that he would have had to “rely exclusively on strength of will to defeat the enemy within” if it were not for Grandpa Johnson.

There is no doubt in my mind that your help in my time of need has made it possible to defeat this cancer. That I will arise and walk out as a whole man. Ready, willing, and able to join in life’s larger wars. Confident in the fact that where there is a will there is a way.”

He goes on to tell how Dr. Li was in the night before to express confidence that the vaccine would work in his case; and then tells how the stay in the hospital gave him time to polish up his sales plan, and plan for the success of the sales program, how the treatments would be timed in such a manner that he would make the Chicago sales trip. “All in all, things are working out beautifully,” Dick writes with the power of his positive thinking. The letter is dated 9/16/65. Dick died a year later.

According to legend, my father had accepted his death sentence. So, it was so painful to read in his own words the extent to which he had suffered and struggled to live. It was so painful to empathize with his fear, to identify his fear as my own. I too have a strong faith and am willing to go to great lengths to heal and have a positive attitude in the face of strife. I too fear the “enemy within” me, and really want to live.

The gift from my mother: the words from beyond the grave written by the man who was my father, made me realize that my faith needed to grow to include an acceptance of death in order to truly be free.

Humbly,

L.

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