A Different Kind of Love
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air and on the minds of people around the world. I could tell you about love by talking about my wonderful wife, Kathleen, with whom I’ve just celebrated our twenty-second anniversary. Or I could tell you about the sweet, steadfast love that you could find in my grandparents, Robert H. Dickson Jr. and Susan Louise Bailey Dickson.
Instead, I want to tell you about the kind of love that both literally and figuratively gives of yourself, giving life and hope to people in hopeless situations.
Let me tell you about my uncle Ralph. Daryl Ralph Dickson was born 9 Feb 1944 in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the second son of Robert and Susan Dickson. My dad, Bob, was his older brother by three years. Ralph and Bob grew up in a house full of love. Like all brothers, they had their moments and squabbles, but as different as they were, it was always apparent that they loved each other dearly. Even as they drove each other crazy, sometimes.
Bob married and became a father. Ralph was single for most of his life, marrying only later, in his forties. But, Ralph was a fun uncle. I remember riding around with him in rural northeast Arkansas in his big station wagon. He had a fancy air horn in it. We would cruise around quiet neighborhoods looking for people and cats by the side of the road. He would let the air horns go and watch to see how high the cat would jump. He would never hurt any animals, but he like to surprise them! We would ride for burgers at the “Ptomaine Castle.” He loved to tell stories about things that happened to him, though you were never completely sure of the veracity of all of the details.
Ralph went to the University of Arkansas, got two degrees in English, and became a high school teacher, following in his mother’s footsteps. He actually taught in the same school where his mother began her career in Lavacca, Arkansas. He moved to Osceola, Arkansas and to Houston, Texas, and finally back to Fort Smith, Arkansas as a teacher. In each school where he taught, Ralph gave his all to his students. He was class sponsor, or led the student newspaper, or engaged with the students beyond the classroom in so many other ways. As a result, he was as loved by his students as he loved them. I think that, like his mother, he had high expectations of his students, but helped them meet those expectations.
Like his parents, Ralph was a helper. He was always pitching in to help people who needed something – a ride, a hand moving something, help building something or repairing something, whatever was needed. He was active in his church, singing in the choir and playing the handbells.
But, Ralph always had some health issues. Kidney problems ran in his family. His grandmother only ever had one that worked and eventually his were giving out. As his illness was progressing, Bob one time told him that if he ever needed a new kidney, Bob knew where he could find one. Eventually things came to that and Ralph needed a new kidney.
After going through all of the preliminary examinations and testing, Bob was found to be a good match and offered to give Ralph one of his kidneys as a transplant. The kidney problems that Ralph and Grandmother Bailey had did not carry into Bob. The love of brothers one again was coming through.
Ralph came to Pittsburgh, where Bob lived and where there were world famous transplant centers and they prepared for the surgery. Ralph and Bob shared a room before and after the surgery. I have heard that even though they were sometimes driving each other crazy (depending on who told it, the blame might have been more on one side or the other!), there was never any doubt that the room was filled with love and commitment to each other. And with that, Bob became a living organ donor to his brother, Ralph.
I wish I could say that Ralph lived for years and years after that, and that his young marriage became a long one. But ultimately, even though the kidney transplant was successful, Ralph’s other heath issues were too much and he died 6 Feb 1992, just a few days shy of his 48th birthday and only having been married for a year and a half. He was buried back in Arkansas, in the Vinita Cemetery in Hackett, Sebastian County, along with generations of his ancestors. His students turned out for the funeral. He was the much beloved class sponsor and the love was very much mutual.
Let me tell you how the love continued. Scott Lang was Bob’s stepson. He and Scott’s mother, Mary Ellen, had married in 1989. Scott was basketball coach at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh, PA. LaRoche is a small Division III school and even though Scott had had offers to move into Division II and Divison I schools, he cherished the atmosphere of the small school. At LaRoche, he could, as he put it, coach his players to not just be basketball players, but could coach them to become genuinely good men. That’s another kind of special love.
Half-way through a fairy-tale season, one where Scott’s team was clearly a special group and was on its way toward great things, tragedy struck. One Friday evening during practice, Scott had a heart attack and died on the basketball court, surrounded by his players. It was a huge shock to the team, the school, and certainly his family. He was only 41 years old.
The outpouring of love for him was overwhelming. The school had tributes for him and his death was covered on local TV and newspapers. His storybook team went on to win the conference championship for the first time and then to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school’s history. They said they were “Winning for Coach”. His story was featured in Guideposts Magazine. (You really ought to read it.) The team’s story was the subject of a tribute aired on ESPN during the Division I championship that year. There was no doubt about the love Scott had for his players and his school.
Upon Scott’s death, Bob and Mary Ellen knew that Scott wanted to continue to share of himself, something that they were already familiar with. Scott had long been signed up as an organ donor himself and his parents made sure that this was known at the hospital. Scott’s tissues – all sorts of things from skin to tendons and ligaments to corneas – were used for transplants to a number of other people. So, his love continued to other people that he never even knew.
And that love that gives of oneself – both figuratively and literally – continues. Bob and Mary Ellen are active in recruiting and promoting organ donation with CORE, the Center for Organ Recover and Education. They help to answer peoples’ questions and calm any sorts of fears and qualms about organ donation. (Hint: It’s not like what you might have seen in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life!)
Love. That’s our topic. And you see that it comes in lots of flavors -from the love of brothers to the love of a marriage in one’s middle years to the love of helping young men grow and mature to the love of brothers and parents to give, literally, a part of themselves to save the life of another.
Let’s celebrate that love and look for ways that we can take it forward in our own lives.
Consider becoming an organ donor yourself.