My dad has passed away, somewhat suddenly, following a short illness. And I’m still trying to process things. I’m a writer and have been for many years now… and while I still feel like I’m drifting around in shock, maybe writing this blog entry will help me organize my thoughts and emotions.
Peter Chamberlain: July 17, 1942 – August 11, 2017.
Beloved father, grandpa, brother, family man.
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Dad was a bit of a character who seemed to be able to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable differences. He was a scientist with a soul of a poet, a staunch rationalist who embraced profound spirituality. Tightly frugal with his own money, yet displaying vast depths of generosity in regards to time, lodging, mentoring, or practical help for everyone in his circle. He was also the most profoundly non-judgmental person I’ve known.
He was deeply devoted to his family—a bond that increased as time went by. Dad embraced his blended family and relentlessly refused to make distinction among its many varied members… particularly among his children. We were all, simply and bluntly, “his kids.” His front door was always open, and at key transitional moments he welcomed his kids, grandkids, and other family members to live with him while their respective dust settled. His Stillwater house was more than a residence, it was the hearth and home base of the whole family.
Dad’s love of family manifested itself in other ways, too. Inspired by his grandma, and more recently by his Uncle Welton, he became a genealogy buff who devoted countless hours to tracing family lines, untangling family history, and documenting everything he could. And not just for his nuclear family; he was active in the World Chamberlain Genealogical Society, serving as the organization’s secretary and publishing a number of articles for them.
He even pulled me into his genealogy research at times. Years ago as I was heading back to Costa Rica for my dissertation research, he made a last minute request—the Society had just been contacted by a person in Costa Rica with the last name of Chamberlain who was looking for help in tracking down where his unusual (at least in Spanish-speaking Costa Rica) surname name came from. I’m sure I gave an eye-roll with the response that sure, if I somehow (!) ran across anything about any Chamberlains while pawing through Costa Rica’s National Archives, I’d assuredly let him know. But the hilarity is… I did. In researching the building of Costa Rica’s railroad system starting in the 1870s, I was surprised to discover a gentleman named Edward Chamberlain from Massachusetts in the records. Curiosity inflamed, I dug deeper to find that this young man, a second son with few immediate prospects, had been contracted to go to Costa Rica to oversee some of the railroad’s construction. He met a local woman, fell in love, and the rest was history. When I returned home, beaming with my armful documentary evidence about this long-ago family connection, dad was so tickled he bought me a drink.
One thing about my dad that always impressed me was his remarkable mind. He was a geophysicist who for most of his career worked for the U.S. Bureau of Mines. He worked on a wide range of projects over the years, establishing himself as a nickel specialist and consulting with mining operations around the world. For a time he was even involved in exploring the possibilities of lunar mining for NASA. His scientific background gave him a legendary sense of organization and meticulous record-keeping (for example, we discovered his file documenting haircut expenses going back 10 years). He also had exceptional skill with math and figures, and a real gift for explaining them; many family members came to rely on him for math- and science-related homework.
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But at his core, dad was an outdoorsman, who was never happier than when he was in the great outdoors, fishing, hunting, hiking, or boating on his beloved St. Croix River. He often remarked that this love was born early on in his boyhood. Some of his favorite childhood memories were playing outside, spending time digging under rocks, capturing a whole collection of creepy crawlers for observation, and chasing things through the meadows. Last fall I lent him my copy of famed British naturalist Gerald Durrell’s memoir of growing up wild and untamed on the Greek island of Corfu, My Family and Other Animals. He returned it with surprising speed, saying he read it nearly straight through with a huge smile on his face. “That’s just how I grew up. And I’d do it exactly that same way if I could!”
Love of the outdoors was a constant throughout his life. We all have stories of fishing with him in his famous little duck boat—which he has had at least as long as I can remember, and is still sitting ready to go at my sister’s house. Over the past few days, it has been great listening to the stories of the various fishing adventures he shared with other family members… stories that often ended with dad quipping laconically, “Well. That’s embarrassing.”
Some of my fondest memories regarding Dad came when he finally traveled to Costa Rica with me and my wife Jill a few years ago. Throughout the 10 years or so when I was going to Costa Rica essentially every year, he had never been able to visit me. After my stepmom Darlene passed away, he decided time was too short, and there was no time like the present… and off we went. The trip was altogether magical. Working though various guides, I was able to get us boating through mangrove forests, and hikes through the rainforest. We spent days in Manuel Antonio, my sentimental favorite of Costa Rica’s many national parks, where we had close-up encounters with several species of monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and a kaleidoscope of birds. I was beyond delighted when dad bluntly said he was not ready to be an old man, and went white-water rafting and zip-lining.
But the best moments were the simplest ones. Each morning he was up at the crack of dawn sitting with his coffee on our deck, obsessively watching—and cataloging—the tropical birds in the trees around us. Jill smiled to watch us plunge into deep discussions about color patterns, crests or tail lengths, and then rigorously writing notes in his birding guide. That hand-annotated guide is now perhaps the most precious book in my library.
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Music was a huge part of dad’s life, and something I’m glad we could share together. He loved going dancing. And dad’s “infinite playlist” was a thing of wonder, drawing eclectically and joyfully from a huge variety of time periods and styles. From the music of his youth, it spanned to include the top tunes of today—looking at his CD collection, he seems to have taken joy in buying each year’s “Grammy Winners” collection and adding the new songs to his list. He was particularly fond of the Finlandia Hymn by Jean Sibelius, and I’m duly sharing a clip of it as bit of a musical memorial.
He nearly always came to hear me perform, once driving down to Kansas City to hear me in the first opera I was cast in. This June, on Father’s Day, he came to hear me in Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection, with the Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Orchestra. He went to the doctor days later, and that is when his health began to sharply decline. The memory of that wonderful day, the final performance he saw me in, is a memory I’m holding onto fiercely right now, especially given the Second Symphony’s theme of breaking free from death and rising again to the Light. I doubt I’ll be able to listen to the CD we recorded shortly thereafter without tears.
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Dad’s end came swiftly and methodically, keeping in the spirit of how he lead his life. When it became clear that he was seriously ill, he stated to me again and again, “Scott, if this is the end, I’m okay with it. I’ve lived my life the way I wanted to, and have seen all you kids and grandkids become the people you were meant to be. I’m proud of all of you. And now I’m ready to join… well, a new whirlpool of consciousness.”
I’m grateful that I was able to spend his last day with him. At one quiet time when Jill and I were alone with him, I sang some of the choruses to his favorite songs as he slept. I think it did us both some good.
He passed gently on Friday, August 11, 2017. It was a beautiful moment, and in keeping with his life. It happened a few minutes after all five of us kids in our blended family had gathered together. In fact it was the first time we were all in the same room—we had been watching him in shifts to make sure he was never alone, and my brother had only arrived from New York the night before. Rather spontaneously we had all gathered for lunch at the hospice care facility, but we were soon shooed outside his room to give the hospice nurse a chance to tend to him privately. He died a few minutes later. It was a perfect match for his personality—deeply invested in his family, but not wanting to unduly burden his kids or have us fuss over him.
And so he’s gone. His legacy is all around us, in his family, in the lives of the many people he touched, and in his love for the natural world. He ended his life precisely as he lived it, and it was beautiful.
But right now I don’t care… I just want my dad back.