It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Those who know me in real life know why; On May 1st, 2012, my father, Robert Paul Beem, passed away after a seven month battle with pancreatic cancer. Today marks the one month anniversary.
His passing was peaceful. Hospice, for our family, was a godsend. They kept him as comfortable as possible till the end.
Your outpouring of love and support is inspiring and appreciated. Please know how much my family and I appreciate your kind words and actions.
I wish all of you could have known my father.
What follows are the remarks read at his memorial service, prepared by my brother and myself. I share them here to mark his passing and honor his memory.
Remarks Prepared by Matthew and David Beem
Though we know he was a relatively new member of your congregation, the Sedona United Methodist Church, and the wonderful people here, was, for our father, a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Dad was a member of many churches over the years, as he meandered across the country, from New York to Illinois, from California to Virginia, Philadelphia to Indiana, and finally, Arizona. But, of all the places he lived, and “churched,” nowhere put a smile on his face quite like Sedona United Methodist, and the people who worship here. He loved you very much.
On Saturday, we met with Pastor Matt and shared some things about our father that were at the core of who he was. Silent pieces of dad that, though silent in one sense, sang clearly and loudly for those of us who knew him and loved him. And when we say “sing,” we’re not talking so much about his music, though he loved to share that also, but rather, his faith, and how that shaped his character. If you knew our father, this was the “silent” song you heard in your heart when you were with him, and this is what we wanted Pastor Matt to address today. Our job, as we saw it, was to share a picture of our father, as seen through the eyes of his two sons.
Dad was a math professor. He made his career at Indiana University South Bend. Our family moved there in 1975, into a home that was about a mile from the university.
Dad enjoyed walking to work, when he could. On his route, he’d pass some homes situated across the street from a local high school. These always had trash littered across their yards, and dad’s habit was to collect the trash as he went, and then deposit it into a trash can further up the road, at a filling station on the corner.
One day, dad followed a mysterious line of trash that led, in a circle, into the middle of a person’s yard. At the end of the line of trash was a five dollar bill left under a stone.
Now, we never asked dad whether or not he took the money—somehow it didn’t occur to us to ask. More interesting was someone rearranging the trash left on their front lawn in a circle and leaving five bucks for the “Good Samaritan.” It’s interesting that someone went to all that trouble just to say, “Thanks.” They could have kept an eye out for him, and then thanked him in person, or they could have just been silently thankful and done nothing. But someone was inspired by our father’s actions—inspired enough to take the trouble to lure dad to a five dollar bill. Someone arranged all that trash and had faith that dad would be back, enough faith to leave money sitting out on their front lawn, in broad daylight, and across the street from a high school.
Another thing about our father was that he had what some people would consider goofy taste in television shows. At least, it wasn’t the sort of dignified programming one might expect of so learned a man. He had a penchant for cheese, because there was always a kid trapped inside him. He loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Monty Python, Smallville, and The 9th Kingdom. Of course, as a conversationalist, he’d find common ground just about anywhere—one of his favorite books, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, wasn’t exactly light reading. He enjoyed discussing a wealth of considerably erudite subjects, with great passion, but to hear him talk about “silly” things like Buffy with such delight made everyone around him happy, because it revealed how completely unpretentious he was. Pretension just wasn’t going to stick on dad. It never did.
One of the goofy characters dad knew was a small Muppet from Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, named, Salacious Crumb.
(Hold up Salacious Crumb, or pass him around.)
This was a toy we had, growing up. Well, long after we were done playing with toys, but still before they’d all been thrown out, dad found Salacious Crumb and started a game with us. He’d leave the toy in funny places around the house for us to find: the medicine cabinet, inside a shoe, or a sock, on top of the television set. Dad would hide him, and then wait patiently until we found him. Eventually we did, though sometimes it took months, and then it was our turn to hide it somewhere he’d find. And we went on like that, around the house. There were a few times we thought Salacious was lost forever, but he’d always turn up. When we went off to college, we even mailed it back and forth once or twice. Eventually, somewhere around twenty-four years ago, the game sort of fizzled out, and Salacious Crumb was retired, lost, or forgotten. But it was something small we did in our family. And because it was something small we did with dad, it’s grown to become something very large in our hearts.
In the eight months since we learned of dad’s cancer, dad has been steadily sorting through his belongings. He needed to make it as easy as possible for those who survived him. He wisely elected to let go of the lion share of his material belongings before his death, and he left no corner of the home unturned. In the six or seven visits we’ve made since October, 2011, dad shared all kinds of things that had been sealed away for years. And when we weren’t in Sedona, he was always mindful not to throw anything out that might be meaningful to us. He’d set things aside until we could return, and talk with him about it.
In those visits, we helped sort all kinds of things. Family photographs were most daunting because he had all this genealogical information in his head, and we didn’t want to lose that. So we’d grill him, and he’d share what he knew, and what he didn’t. We learned about our ancestry, then. We learned about Earl Beem, who died of the Spanish Influenza. Dad’s uncle, Paul Beem, a physicist, who put rockets up for Cape Canaveral. We learned that the Beems could be traced back to their service under General George Washington, and earlier. But these too were things dad kept quiet about.
In those months, we admired our father as we watched him let go of nearly everything he owned that wasn’t essential to his remaining days: family photographs, favorite books, CDs, DVDs, electronics, musical instruments, including a violin, guitar, two banjos and all the sheet music, and all kinds of other things. We admired how he delighted in finding people he could give these things to—people who would sincerely love and use the things he no longer could.
And besides all of his belongings, one of dad’s close friends, George Playter passed away, so dad was going through all of George’s things, too. Once again, dad delighted in finding homes for things George had owned and loved—including a wonderful organ. He did this out of love and respect for his friend, but also because George had no one else who could do it.
At any rate, dad was thorough, and thoughtful, in cleaning house. He just didn’t want us to have that one-two punch of losing him, and then have the sad job of going through a lifetime of his things. At least, he wanted the experience to be as gentle as it could be on us, who survive him.
And that is who dad was. Besides being the kind man we’ve all had the good fortune to know, he was first and foremost a thoughtful man. And he was a humble man. He was uncomfortable being in the spotlight, or receiving flattery. He expressly told us that he didn’t want people needlessly suffering through remembrances in an effort to “honor” him. He knows you loved him. And you know he loved you. For him, that was enough. For him, that was kind of everything.
Dad passed away on May 1st, 2012 at 9:10 am. It was peaceful, and he didn’t suffer unduly. In the days since, we’ve made light work around the house, going through all his remaining things, which were few. Those things dad held on to till the end are revealing of his character.
We found pictures of dad’s old bluegrass band, The Bluegrass Session, aptly named because its personnel drew from various church’s “session members.”
We found the math textbook he wrote, and his dissertation, two items he couldn’t bring himself to throw out because of the work they represented, even though he often joked, “Only two people in the world would care about this: my advisor and my mother, and of those I’m not so sure about my mother.”
We found Father’s Day cards and birthday cards. There was a recommendation letter someone had written for his mother, apparently for a teaching job she’d applied for. There was his deluxe box set of Calvin and Hobbes, the cartoon series by Bill Watterson.
Oh, and there was Salacious Crumb, hidden in a small wooden box dad kept on top of his dresser in the bedroom. Hidden, but not lost or forgotten, in a place he knew we’d find.
Well played, dad. Well played.