Friday, April 13, 2012

Dougal W. Stevenson 1931--2012

This is a photograph of my parents that I made last summer on my parents' 59th wedding anniversary in August. My dad looks pretty good, I think. In fact, he didn't look so bad the last time I saw him the last week in February. I was able to convince myself that I would see him again. But I was wrong; he passed away this week.

The piece I've pasted in below is part of a longer piece. I didn't write it to tell my dad's life story, or the story of our family, or anything so grand or thorough. I wrote it in the spring of 2011 after visiting him in Dearborn. He was between chemotherapy sessions and he had come out of the first round pretty well.

I expect I'll have a lot more to say about him later, but this is all I have for now:

Big Dougal

I made these travel plans at a time when we had been told to expect the worst. But the worst has not happened. Instead, my father has endured the chemotherapy and radiation with considerable luck and grace, though whether the treatment is actually affecting the cancer remains to be known. In fact, he looks better than he did the last time I saw him. He stopped drinking a few months before the cancer was diagnosed and had lost considerable weight, a good outcome from a bad cause.

The anticipation between the time he was diagnosed and when the treatment began was hard on him and my mother. Over the phone I said, “Well, you’ve had a lot of time to get used to the idea [of chemotherapy]. And he laughed. “That sounds like something I would have said to you.”

One day I was sitting on the dock at my parents’ house on Blue Lake. It was early morning. I was drinking coffee and watching the mist rise off the surface of the water. My dad walks up and sits down next to me.

“What are we going to do today?” I ask.

“We’re doing it,” he says.

My mother, who worked with autistic kids, has said that when I was child I was this close to being autistic. She holds her thumb and forefinger about one inch apart. I’m not saying she‘s wrong, but if she’s even this much (thumb and forefinger an inch apart) right, I’m claiming I got it from my father. The form it takes in him is talking, to no one in particular, in bits of received language that have stuck in his brain: ditties, sayings, punchlines, song lyrics, advertising blips. He’s been doing this all my life and every time I see him there is more. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” he whispers to no one, apropos of nothing.

Although my brother has been (wisely) named financial executor of their estate my father felt compelled to show me his financial paperwork: how much money there is and where it is all located. It was the notebook of man who had put his affairs in order. I wish he hadn’t shown it to me. And it wasn’t necessary, as it’s a well-known fact that my mother is blessed with immortality.

He’s a bit frail and has lost his muscle tone along with the weight. Basically he has been immobile for about six months. He has a feeding tube attached to his stomach, that hasn’t seen use, yet has to be cleaned out everyday. He also has some other needles and tubes attached to his arm. He bathes everyday and avoids all the things the doctors have advised to avoid: people, fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers. Stuff he pretty much avoided by nature anyway.

He was a tough guy, a strong guy, most of his life. His father burned the family furniture in the furnace to get them through the winter in the early 1930s. He played football in college, undersized, in the days before facemasks. He smoked a couple packs of Marlboros a day, back when that was not too uncommon. He drank Cutty Sark and didn’t have much use for golf. When we were in high school he could still hang with us in two-on-two basketball in the driveway. He lived most of his life in Dearborn, a notoriously white community, but was one of the least racist persons I have ever known. He believed in Detroit and the car industry. He owned some cool cars: a clean Falcon with three on the tree, an AMC something or other with a huge oversized engine, and later a Mustang that my brother John opened up to 140 mph on I-94 regularly between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. He started out at Ford and ended up back there, sort of, at J. Walter Thompson who did Ford’s advertising. I believe he voted Republican all his life until recently: unable to morally support Republicans he preferred not to vote at all. Also, I suspect that he no longer subscribes to the concept that what is good for General Motors is good for the country. The only time I remember him crying was trying to say grace at Thanksgiving, shortly after his mother died.

We watched a Red Wings game together and talked about our favorite Wings, mine being Gordie Howe, Federov and Shanahan. It’s pretty hard not to love Nik Lidstrom.

My parents let Eddie through the quarantine. They always liked him. He knew where the line was with them and stayed just slightly on the wrong side of it. Ed would pretty much say anything that came to mind, and somehow get away with it. My parents were thrilled to see him. He did his usual bit, good naturedly insulting everyone in the room, talked to my dad about Ford, and the buy-out he got from them after thirty years, talked about the work he was doing now at Detroit Diesel. Then he told them he’d drop me back home at 4:30 in the morning and to look for me in the snowbank out by the street. As we left, I could hear my dad repeating his name, “Eddie Schechter, Eddie Schechter” like a mantra, and shaking his head in wonder, as if Eddie were utterly unchanged since the day he first walked into our house in 1967.

The day I left town he checked into Henry Ford Hospital for another week of chemotherapy. I took a photograph of him at the hospital and you wouldn’t know he was sick by looking at it. My dad was up for the fight.