Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Churchville, Maryland, May 15, 2012
My father, John Scocca, used to tell me something. The usual thing to do at a time like this is to quote the wisdom of the departed. My father shared great deal of wisdom through his years, but-- quoting him accurately, here in church, presents a problem. His single finest piece of advice, offered more than once, was, "Don't be an --"
--but to finish that sentence out loud, in a house of worship, would be contrary to the advice itself. The last word was an Anglo-Saxon compound, two syllables, which might be found in an unabridged dictionary not far from "assistant dean."
For which, in my father's eyes, it was perhaps a synonym.
Good enough. At any rate, what I came to realize was that "Don't be an [assistant dean]" was an unexpectedly profound, and characteristic, piece of advice from him. It assumed that the listener already possessed the judgment, on his or her own, to recognize what it means to be an [assistant dean], and the wisdom--once roused--to find a way to stop being one.
This is a man who was a dedicated (if sometimes terrifying) teacher. His advice was advice that could only have come from someone whose view of humanity was fundamentally generous and compassionate.
Generous, compassionate, and unprintable.
He was born, by a margin of just a few years, into a moment of history that the American popular imagination would soon sweep past. The Depression, real economic ruin, had come right into the house, and no one knew that it wouldn't come in again. World war was coming, again, and no one knew if this time it could be won.
The funniest people are the ones who know how serious life is. My father saw things clearly, and he named them plainly.
He was a small boy reading English package labels to his grandmother, in the kitchen, as she tried to reverse-engineer store-bought goods from scratch--his grandmother teaching him things about cooking that she wouldn't teach her own daughters, or other female relations. He was a teenager listening to race music on the radio. He was an FDR Democrat devouring the work of H.L. Mencken. He was a collector of old fountain pens and an accumulator of new computers. He was a dedicated churchgoer who kept a stopwatch on the sermon--sorry, Dad--with a running commentary under his breath. He was a Philadelphia Athletics fan.
This was a surprise to me, when I finally found out. I knew he cheered for the Phillies, quietly, when his family wasn't cheering for the Orioles. But he was born a fan of the A's. They lost 100 games the year he was born, and finished in last place nine times by the time he was 14--at which point they abandoned Philadelphia and moved to Kansas City. Yet my father kept loving baseball. He loved baseball and took us to Memorial Stadium, where we spent our own childhood watching some of the greatest teams ever to play the game.
What other surprises are there? As an undergraduate, he took a class with the deconstructionists, who had made their American beachhead at Hopkins. Where cultural conservatives saw and denounced a radical and impenetrable set of literary theories, he saw entertaining exegesis, like he'd done in Catholic school. Text was text.
For all his appetite for literature, though, the text he chose to work with was written in four letters. Biochemistry had just cracked open the genetic code. A curious person could start unlocking the fundamental processes of life. So he did. He was not at the bench looking for a cure for acne, or preparing to announce he'd discovered the genetic basis of compulsive shopping. He was a pure scientist. Surrounded by premeds, he was a pure scientist.
As a third-year graduate student, he taught laboratory technique to incoming students. He taught it caustically enough to leave one of his students shaken--so shaken that her roommate hunted him down and told him he was out of line. He went to find the student and tell her he was sorry. I don't know exactly what the apology was, but it must have been pretty good, because Jane Scocca is here today. And so are my brother and I.
And--I'm not quite sure which way this cuts--my mother's laboratory technique has always been impeccable.
He was not much of a traveler. He did smuggle radioactive material into Pakistan once. But it was a very small amount. Strictly, actually, for research purposes, to help out Pakistani biochemists. He came home with some of those roll-up woolen hats, a new interest in cooking subcontinental cuisine, and the news that General Muhammad Zia Ul-Haq looked, in person, just like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Not long after that, Zia was killed by a bomb on his plane, in a crate of mangoes.
Closer to home, my father did his adventuring as an Assistant Scoutmaster, attached to the Spider Patrol of Troop 802. It was not a job for anyone over-devoted to the Boy Scout Law. The Spiders were trustworthy, within our limits, and loyal. Helpful, friendly--OK. Courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent? We were cheerful. (Also: good at setting fires.)
Unguided, the Spiders would have been content to eat nothing but Underwood deviled chicken spread, cold Pop-Tarts, and E. coli. Some Scoutmasters would have rolled up their sleeves and taken over. That was not my father's approach. He did supply a propane stove at summer camp, so we would have boiling water to sterilize the dishes. And one winter night, he pulled me out of the slush puddle where Peter Lapointe and I had pitched our tent, while I shivered uncontrollably, and got me into a lodge by a hot stove.
But mostly, he left us Spiders to our own devices--while still, from the background, conveying the message that our devices needed improvement. A pointed comment here, a cooking suggestion there, and somehow the most nutritionally balanced and delicious food in the campground was coming off our campfire. Usually wrapped in foil. That was the great breakthrough in technique, aluminum foil.
I'm sure there are illustrious biochemists who could share a similar story. His pedagogical talents did not discriminate. If Rottweilers lived longer, and if Rottweilers could talk, there were Rottweilers who could tell their own stories. Everyone--except maybe premeds--could be taught, if you were willing to teach.
We can't help but remember a life by the thing than ended it. It may be in bad taste to editorialize. But I would be remiss not to say, at this point, briefly: please do not smoke.
That said, I would also be remiss not to note that, during one of his last trips to the hospital, someone asked him if he had any regrets, if he would do anything differently. "I woulda had a couple more cigarettes," he said.
But the pulmonary illness was a terrible thing, and he kept the worst of it to himself. Let people think he was a wallflower, rather than that he couldn't dance. Let them think he was a homebody, rather than that he couldn't go out.
A few years ago, when my son Mack was a baby, we took the train to Aberdeen, and we made the mistake of counting on the Harford County taxi system to pick us up. It was cold and raining, and the baby was cold and getting rained on. And after half an hour, with the dispatcher still promising a cab in 10 minutes, he loaded an oxygen bottle into the car and headed down West Bel Air Avenue, the oxygen ticking in the passenger side, to get his grandson in out of the rain.
I remember that oxygen bottle. His pulmonologist explained things this way, once: every day, he was climbing a mountain. He lived at the altitudes where adventurers falter and die. Weeks ago, the doctors saw his CO2 levels and said he would be dead in days. They thought they were dealing with someone from sea level. He had already climbed mountains to teach class, to visit his sister, to see both his sons married.
He kept climbing. He climbed a mountain to sit at his kitchen table with his wife, and drink his coffee. He climbed mountains to see his younger grandson in his arms. He climbed further than anyone could see.
He kept climbing because you were with him. The first time the disease knocked him into the hospital, it left him flat in bed, on a machine. I would say helpless, but there was help there: the nurse on duty was Peter Lapointe, of the Spider Patrol. Before long, he was well enough to give his sister the finger. Before long, he was back in his own kitchen.
The disease never went away. But neither did he. When he was leaving the hospital, back in March, he turned to me and said that he wanted to say a little prayer before he left. The room attendant smiled and said, Praise be, Dr. John, we can do that. I had to tell her that "say a little prayer" was his lifelong way of excusing himself to go to the toilet. So he did. And then he rode on home.
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