Sunday, January 26, 2020

Eulogy for my father, David I. Drout, MD

The eulogy I gave for my father on Saturday.

David I. Drout, MD

When my daughter Rhys was about six years old, we took her to a faculty party at Wheaton. She was talking to one of my colleagues and told him how excited she was that her grandfather was coming to visit. “He’s a doctor,” she said. My colleague, trying to be nice, said “Well, both of your parents are doctors, also.” Rhys gave him this withering look, sighed, and said “No, my grandpop is the kind of doctor who can do something for you.”

I can’t say she’s wrong. Indeed, because I’m not in medicine, if my students call me “Doctor” I say: “Doctor Drout is my father, dude.” (Those of you with kids will get the reference).

I’m just a teacher, not a doctor. My dad was both. And since almost everyone here already knows what a great doctor he was, I am going to talk about what a great teacher and father he was.

You know someone is a great teacher when they teach things that other people say can’t be taught. Among the many things Dad taught us was the supposedly impossible skill of creativity. There was never some kind of formal lesson, but he taught us all the same: by letting us be creative, by almost never shooting down even the craziest ideas, but instead supporting us in developing them, believing that if anyone could pull it off, it would be us, and showing us how much fun there was in trying. And even if you failed—and boy, did we fail—he at least got a good story out of it.

Examples: at some point in the 1970s, I read an article about ecology and how we needed to compost to save the planet, and so I insisted that we not throw out all the carcasses of the fish we’d caught on our favorite Belmar party boat—the Captain Bill Van—but instead put the fish in the compost pile I’d made in my grandmother’s back yard. Well, it wasn’t the most well-constructed compost pile, and it was the middle of July and about 100 degrees out, and there were a lot of cats in the neighborhood—or at least it sounded that way when in the middle of the night they decided to fight over the fish heads, which started to really smell bad after the cats had dragged them all over the yard, and so my dad had to go out at 3:00 in the morning and bury stinking fish carcasses by flashlight. But he didn’t shoot down my idea and he helped me come up with better execution of it (without fish heads).

Then there was the time I had read, in one of his books on big-game fishing, how to rig a squid bait. So I insisted that Dad buy a whole squid from the bait shop and bring it home with us. I carefully slit it open, put multiple huge hooks inside, sewed it up with black thread and kept it overnight in the fridge, so it would stay supple. And the next morning we went down to the breakwater in Asbury Park to fish. Now, this squid bait was about ten inches long and probably weighed close to a pound, so I could not really cast it very far. But I’ll tell you, if a blue marlin had happened to swim within five feet of the breakwater, that fish would have been mine! Dad didn’t make fun of me about this until 20 years later.

When we lived in New York, my father took me to the Museum of Natural History every Saturday he had off, and he never let on how exhausting that must have been, back when interns and residents worked every day, and then every other night as well—I remember how happy I was when he was “just” working every day and every third night. Luxury! But on Saturday mornings we’d go all the way from New York Hospital to Central Park West and head straight to the 4th floor of the Museum so we could start with the dinosaurs. Then we’d explore. We did this so many times that I still know the entire museum by heart.

When I wanted to build a darkroom in a two-bedroom apartment, we did. When it seemed like a good idea to try to cryogenically freeze and revive beetles in Dad’s refrigerator, we did that. When my brother and I wanted to set plastic models on fire—indoors—in order to make a realistic diorama of the Iranian Rescue Mission crash, he helped us (and made sure we didn’t burn the house down). When we wanted to make candles, we made many, many candles of many colors and scents. For some reason, Dad always joked about the color Chartreuse, which, in retrospect, was not an attractive color for candles.

One day I showed up with twenty-two frozen mackerel in a hefty bag. I’d caught the fish the day before and didn’t know how to clean them, so I froze them and brought them to Dad, who drove us over to my grandparents’ house so we could try to clean them (we were not successful, and he had to dispose of 22 frozen mackerel). Another time he came home from Sunday dinner with Grandmom and Grandpop to find me, back early from a Boy Scout fishing trip, sitting at the front door with a bag full of albacore and bonito I'd caught (I’m just noticing how many of these stories involve dead fish...). So we drove back to Neptune and cleaned them under the streetlight.

The only time my Dad balked at a crazy plan was after I talked him into signing me up for the Cornell Ornithology correspondence course, and chapter one said I should get a dead pigeon and keep it in the refrigerator to study avian anatomy. (However, when I showed up with a live pigeon that I’d caught at the beach, he let me keep it—though I don’t think he was terribly upset when Menelaus the pigeon flew away and stopped crapping all over the apartment).

You get the point. My Dad developed creativity in me and my brother by not shutting things down too soon, by letting us explore and make mistakes without fear, and by laughing rather than getting angry when things went wrong.

When the baboons at Great Adventure ripped the all the rubber molding off of his Honda Civic and pooped on the front window, or when we tried to pull a bush out of the front yard with the Pathfinder but really only succeeded in putting tire tracks across the lawn, or when he and Jonathan had the adventure of a lifetime trying to get a stuffed sailfish through customs and then out of a giant wooden crate... (Jonathan can tell you that story), Dad didn't get angry. He laughed.
Making a career about writing about The Lord of the Rings was a crazy idea, but my dad said “Who in the world knows more about that than you?” And he was right, and that’s how the books that he read to me again and again—so that I still only hear them in his voice—turned into a part of my career.

Learning to skate when I was a senior in college and then trying to walk on to the hockey team at Stanford was a crazy idea. But Dad got me started in hockey by taking me to Devils’ games, bought me my first hockey equipment, and didn’t tell me I’d probably embarrass myself trying to play varsity college hockey with no previous experience. And you know what happened: I ended up on the intramural team, where I met Raquel. So the best thing that ever happened to me started as a crazy idea that Dad facilitated.

Dad’s sense of humor helped him teach more serious lessons as well. One night in the summer after my freshman year at college, I had a long, drawn-out phone argument with an ex-girlfriend, during which I took, perhaps, one or two drinks of rum from a bottle that I shouldn’t have been touching. Dad didn’t say anything about it—though I must have been pretty loud—but he did wake me up at 7:00 in the morning the next day to help him dig post-holes in the back yard. It was the middle of August, the humidity was 100% and the temperature was around 90, and I dug post-holes for about three hours. I was as quiet as I could be each time I threw up into the stream, and he pretended not to notice and never said a word about drinking or taking stuff that didn’t belong to me or being loud and obnoxious when he and Roberta were trying to sleep. I learned.

Dad also showed me how to be a good father by putting his sons in front of even long-cherished dreams. Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream was one of my dad’s favorite books, and catching a big game fish like a sailfish or a marlin or the broadbill swordfish was one of my dad’s lifetime goals, what we’d now call a “bucket list” item. But when he finally had a chance to catch a billfish, when he took us fishing in Mexico, he let me sit in the fighting chair first and have a shot at a big fish, which I lost, and then he let Jonathan sit in the chair and catch a small mahi-mahi. Only after he’d given both of us our chances, and the fishing day was nearly over, did he take his turn in the chair. I’ll never forget the look of happiness on his face when he caught his sailfish, and I’ll never forget that he was willing to sacrifice that joy for his sons.

There is no precise moment I can point to in which I learned the single most important lesson my Dad taught me, because he taught it by example every single day. That lesson was: “the individual patient is God.” He believed that the person sitting right in front of him, the person who had come to him for help, deserved—and from him, always received—all of his attention, all of his effort, all of his skill, and his knowledge and his art. No matter if Dad was tired or hungry or worried or not feeling well, he treated that patient in front of him as if God Himself was sitting there. And that’s how he treated us, also: when my father was talking to us, teaching us, loving us, nothing was more important than the person in front of him. And if I have had any success as a professor, as a teacher, and as a father, it is because I try to emulate him and perhaps occasionally succeed in doing so.

I’ll end with this: one of my most treasured memories is of playing catch with my dad in the backyard at his house in Tinton Falls. The sun is going down, it’s getting cooler, and the ball is harder to see, but neither of us wants the game to end. Every time you throw the ball, it comes back, just right, just perfect; it smacks right into the glove, right into the pocket, and you throw the ball again, and it smacks into the glove, and it comes back, and you catch it perfectly, and you throw it and it comes back and the sun sinks further and the sky gets darker and your father, who loves you, keeps catching the ball and throwing it back and you understand, you truly understand, the promise of eternal life in the arms of the Father.


Lisa Spangenberg said...

I am so sorry for your loss. Dr. Drout sounds like one of those people who make the world better.

Noelle said...

I can see where your legacy of teaching came from. What a wonderful eulogy for someone who made an impact on the world through his own work and through you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Brian Murphy said...

Thank you for sharing this, and I'm deeply sorry for your loss.

Flash Sheridan said...

My condolences as well, plus a welcome back to blogging; but one etymological point about “I’m just a teacher, not a doctor.” My online Oxford dictionary says “via Old French from Latin doctor ‘teacher’ (from docere ‘teach’).” British English seems to use “physician” to disambiguate, and Russian “vrach.”

Anonymous said...

A stunning eulogy. the part at the end about playing catch really hit home with me. I hope to create those kinds of memory, those that stay with my children. It's the simple things. Steve Breeze, UK