My father, Warren J. Painter, known to most everyone as “Lefty,” passed away on December 14, 2011. There will be much more to say about his life as time goes on, and about his marriage to my remarkable, redoubtable, inimitable Mama, the one and only Mary Alice. For now, I will simply post these remarks, which I somehow managed to deliver at his funeral. Doing so was quite possibly the craziest – and the finest – thing I have done to date.
We are here today, when all is said and done, however you look at it, because of the heart of Warren Painter.
First of all, because his physical heart, an organ which was a functioning miracle for nearly half his life, finally reached a point where it could no longer keep working.
It was 1973 when he had the heart attack that started his lifetime of cardiac care. Dad had congestive heart failure, but he had a lot of other stuff too. Atrial fib, PVC’s, bundle branch blockage, heart block, v-tach. These terms struck fear into various doctors, especially the younger ones, but to us they were simply terms for Dad’s ‘funny’ heart. In later life, hospital ICU staff would learn to turn certain alarms off lest the monitors clang without stopping.
We all learned to recognize the look that would come over a young doctor’s face when, decked out in his first white coat, he bent in with his stethoscope, poised to give a listen to Lefty Painter’s heart. His expression was at first puzzled, then disbelieving, then panicked. He would often walk quickly out of the room seeking help. If he paused in astonishment, Dad would glance up, a big grin on his face, and say, “It sounds like an old washing machine, doesn’t it?”
So we are here, literally, because of Dad’s heart, in the sense that it was a machine that finally grew unable to work as hard as it had to in order to sustain him. But we are also here because of Lefty Painter’s heart, the heart you all knew and loved so much. We are here because he had a great heart and he touched people’s lives with kindness and decency, and that is far more important than any medical terminology telling us why he is not here today.
Dad had cancer three times, in addition to his heart problems. The first cancer was a gall bladder cancer, undiscovered until a routine laparoscopy to remove it. This meant the cancer was cut into four pieces inside his body prior to removal, making it impossible to be certain all the cellular contamination had been removed afterwards.
The family was ushered into a room days later to hear the details, as a very senior staff doctor knelt beside Mom and Dad and delivered the news. It was grim – they told him to get his affairs in order, and take a few days to decide whether or not he wanted to have radiation treatments, which they said may or may not help him, and might make him quite ill and decrease his quality of life in the time left. “This is about the worst news we can give a person, Mr. Painter,” the doctor said.
We left that day feeling shell-shocked. Dad, as we drove out of the hospital, didn’t answer when we asked “What do you want to do, Dad?” We repeated it, and we didn’t mean about radiation. We literally didn’t know whether to turn left or right – to go out for lunch, or just head out to Lone Tree to Deb’s house.
Dad sat quietly, and then he said, “I want to fly my plane upside down.” I looked at him. He did not have a plane, and to the best of my knowledge none of his war experience included flying. Asked what he meant, he simply repeated, this time with a little smile, “I just want to fly my plane upside down.”
Maybe sons will get the meaning of that right away, but for the Painter daughters on hand his response was mysterious. I figured out that he was talking about something way beyond literal flight, but it took some time before I understood. I gradually came to see he meant he wanted to do something different in his life, to make a statement, to live in an interesting way all his own under the shadow of his own mortality. He wanted to fly his plane upside down, and I believe he did it.
He went on living his life – gardening, spending time with family and friends, being an advisor and neighbor, husband and friend, brother and father, until the darkest days of our lives, in 1995, when Mary Alice grew suddenly and catastrophically ill and passed away after five days. In those moments, Dad’s heart was wounded more than by any illness, yet he was a hero for his wife. He tended her at her bedside with grave sorrow and great care, always being kind to us as we talked to her in her coma, carried in her beloved objects of oceanic art, brought her flowers, and put her favorite tv shows on hoping to lure her back into this world.
None of it worked, and we were all with her as she passed, leaving Dad with the greatest sorrow he had ever known. Still, through it all, he was heroic. In the face of a sadness we could see all over him but could not fathom, he was her perfect partner in life, helping her to leave this world with a tenderness amazing coming from a man so big. He did every brave thing he could for her, and he was in those moments a hero to me and to us all. The lessons we learned then were among the most important, and terribly difficult, lessons a father can ever give his children, and Dad was magnificent. His own faith helped us to keep our faith alive after this great loss.
Two more cancers came and went, each one vanquished by Dad’s spirit and strong constitution. Each time the doctors gave him the news, and told him their recommendations, he would consult with us and especially talk with Mary, who was always his confidante then.
“Well,” he’d finally say to her – “I guess we’ll fight it. We have to fight it, don’t we?” And he’d smile that big smile of his, and we all knew then we were in for lots of hospital time, but somehow also lots of fun with Dad.
He was fun, and he made friends everywhere, even in crisis. Nurses checked in on him, and he always had a joke. This last trip he said to one of us about his nursing care, “If they leave the room laughing, they’ll come back.” At a less happy moment, he said to one doctor, “If you’re not going to do anything, you might as well go home!”
When he passed, we were all there. He was quiet, and had no pain. We got to tell him how much we loved and admired him, we got to tell him to be with Grandma Painter, Mary Alice, and his brothers and sisters who had passed before him. We tried to be for him as strong as he had been for Mama, but it was hard. You see, he had a great heart, and it is harder than anything to let go of someone like that.
Today we say goodbye to our father, our friend, our inspiration and anchor in life. We are at sea, but we know he will be there to guide us, like a blanket of stars. He was a man without material wealth, but he was nonetheless rich in all that mattered. He taught us that a man of strength can afford to be tender and merciful, that to win does not mean to subdue or humiliate another, and that if you possess strength it is your duty to look after those who do not.
As we leave here today, we must remember: We each have a heart. From Lefty Painter we learned that we should never be afraid to use it – it is a miracle within us. We can never exhaust its love, no matter how much we call on it. Beating within each of us, it is a little engine that will carry us farther and farther, just as far as we need to go and farther than we ever thought we could manage.
Thank you Papa, for all you gave us, and for all you were to us.