A few weeks ago, we had the difficult task of calling my brother Joel out in Oakland, California, with the news that Dad’s health had taken a turn for the worse. When Joel hung up the phone, he opened the bible for solace, and turned to the page containing a passage in Matthew, I think Chapter 7, Verse 15. The passage reads: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”
When he arrived here last week, Joel found my father’s bible on his nightstand, and sat down to open it. He noticed the silk bookmark was pulled down into the crease of one page, so he opened to it. And there, in red text, underlined in pencil, was the same quote from Matthew: A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
I just learned about this last night, and I’ve also learned that it brings my brother some comfort to think that he is cut from the same material as our father, and his father in turn. I share that feeling with you, Joel, and it brings me some encouragement when I see some of the same qualities in both of us that I admired in our father and grandfather.
Certainly, Dad’s most notable aspect had to be his determination. When he made up his mind to do something, it was as good as done. Any of you who know the changes he made to his diet and exercise after his heart attack can certainly attest to that. And when he decided that he was going to learn to hit a golf ball…well, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Unfortunately, I seem to have also inherited my father’s slice.
His prime motivator was his concern for his fellow man. He was a fantastic doctor, mostly, I believe, because he genuinely cared for his patients. His lifelong foe was addiction, and he spent the lion’s share of his energies trying to help people overcome their addictions, whether to drugs, to drink, or to food. He had an insight into the addictive personality, and was able to lend an empathetic ear to those who called on him for support. I have learned how to support, how to give without question or thought of compensation, from my father.
He was highly principled, as well. There’s a long-running story in our family about when my mother was pregnant with me. Mom and Dad had decided to name me Aaron, a distinctly UN-Italian name. Needless to say, my grandfather Tony was a little put out by the thought of an “Aaron Cammarata” in the family. Rumor has it they offered my parents a thousand dollars to change my name – I don’t even think they cared what it was changed TO, as long as it wasn’t Aaron. But Dad refused.
Years later, we were at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. My brother was a very fussy eater, back then, somehow managing to scrape by on macaroni and cheese, and Taylor Ham Sandwiches almost exlusively. Grandma finally reached her limit, and offered Joel a thousand dollars to eat all the food she’d put on the plate for him – a little turkey, a little stuffing, a little broccoli, a little lasagna…traditional Italian Thanksgiving fare. Between you and me, I think it was the same thousand dollars, but once again, it was refused. Joel, too, knew how to stand up for his principles. Apparently, despite our grandparents’ best attempts, we’re just not for sale.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his fantastic sense of humor. He was a sharpshooter of a conversationalist, cutting to the core of a jibe with a few well placed words, and he shared his laughter freely with others. But if you saw him gearing up to retell someone else’s joke, you might as well pull up a chair, because few could drag ‘em out like he could.
It’s impossible to speak about my father without some mention of his spirituality. He was a devoutly religious man, and were it not for his need for a family and his love of the finer things in life, we all believe he would have made a wonderful priest.
But as a doctor, a scientist, and a man of letters, he struggled with the aspect of faith that required movement beyond the realm of facts and theories, into that which can never truly be known. His bookshelf reflected the conflict that churned inside him. Kafka and Jean Paul Sartre stood next to Thomas Moore’s “Mind of God”. Frank McCourt rubbed shoulders with Deepak Chopra. Books by Hans Kung with such ominous titles as “On Being a Christian” and “Does God Exist?” threatened to engulf Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time”, and huge tomes on the holy trinity leaned heavily on the poor mortals Godel, Escher, and Bach. My brother and I have both inherited my father’s voracious appetite for learning, for reading, and for self improvement even when others might have said “Ok, I’ve succeeded at this task.”
My father was never content with mere success. He kept journals to track his progress with his major undertakings, and his wife Kathleen recently discovered that in one of his journals, he wrote that “learning the piano is going to be my endeavor of excellence”. Perhaps on that day, it was the piano, but we who knew him know that his whole life, really, was his endeavor of excellence.