My father died yesterday, after a prolonged fight with health issues that no one expected him to survive. He fooled us all by living for years past when I was first told he was going to die. Earlier this year, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he rallied and stepped up in ways no one would have believed him capable of. When she died, part of him did too, and yesterday he finally had enough.
I wanted to write something here about him, his life, his legacy, and how important he was to me, but I just don’t have the words. His close friend and colleague, Dr. Stephen Ausband, fortunately does, and wrote this about my father. I couldn’t have come up with better if I had a year to prepare.
Dr. Edward W. Fisher died today. Ed was probably the first colleague I met many years ago when I came to Averett. He was finishing a Ph.D. in biology, and I was completing one in English. We were young guys with young families and high hopes and similar interests. So we went fishing and talked a lot. Over the years, we became very close friends.
I think some of Ed’s colleagues found him a bit prickly at times. People who are strong-willed, opinionated, and smart often get a reputation like that. He would argue with a fence post. Loudly. His students adored him. They loved him for his care for them, for his knowledge, and also for his very genuine eccentricity. Sometimes he would walk into a class, displaying a special sort of high dudgeon about something, and quote a few lines of poetry. Frost, occasionally Service, but most frequently Byron. There was a bit of the Byronic about my friend.
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The fruits and flowers of love are gone.
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone.
“Who wrote that?” he would growl at a class of sophomores. When nobody dared answer, he would say, “My God! Have you not had a literature class? Tell me who has had Dr. Ausband’s 202! Yes, you. Now, who wrote that? That’s right; Byron. Thank you.”
And then he would launch into a lecture on cell biology or ecology or whatever topic the students had expected him to discuss in the first place.
Ed regarded field trips as important parts of a biology major’s education, and he was forever taking them to Virginia’s parks or to the Eastern Shore or even to a research facility in Maine. Sometimes the students couldn’t afford to go, and so he paid their way. Or he paid enough of the overall expenses so that any student could afford to go. The students never knew of his generosity, but they knew he cared deeply about their education.
Like most of the people I’ve been strongly attached to, he had an eclectic curiosity. He wanted to know what I thought about this writer or that one, he wanted to learn more about painters and writers he admired, and he read voraciously in fields unrelated to his own. Conservative by nature, he could display a marvelous sort of rage at what he regarded as the muddled thinking of many liberal politicians. (He could rage equally well at muddled thinking by anyone, but on a university campus it’s the raging at liberal sacred cows that makes one infamous.) His closest friends told him he reminded them of Yosemite Sam in moods like this. Or perhaps the Tasmanian Devil. He liked both comparisons.
Ed had a good eye for the ridiculous. Once when an outdoor adventure of some kind had been rained out, turning fields and even farm roads into deep, gooey mud, he, Don Ethington, and I took shelter in my truck waiting for the storms to pass. Ed produced from somewhere a bottle of moonshine. Well, there seemed nothing better to do at the time. After a while he mused, “Isn’t it interesting to have the Chair of the Department of Mathematics, the Chair of the Department of English, and the Chair of the Department of Biology sitting in a truck in a rainstorm, with shotguns, drinking untaxed whiskey? Is this the apex of Western civilization or what?”
He was tireless. He could out-walk his most athletic students on field trips; he could talk about painters or decoy carvers or biologists or country music all night; he could snore louder than a chain saw when he finally fell asleep, keeping a whole camp awake. And then he could get up and cook breakfast for everybody before anyone else stirred. But in one of those nasty tricks that the fates or the gods or whoever is in charge of such things sometimes plays, he threw a clot in his leg the very first year he retired. The clot settled in his lungs, and the x-rays looked like pictures of a well-centered pattern made by number six shot. He knew what was coming, of course.
He fought bravely and with dignity. He painted, he read, he talked with the many former students who had become close friends. He held on for years, longer than anyone, including his physicians, thought possible. I saw him a few weeks ago, on his seventy-third birthday. He thanked me for coming, but he was more tired and weak than I had ever seen him in his long illness. It could not be much longer.
His daughter told me that he died about 4:00 this afternoon. I had been out fishing then, and the fishing had been pretty good. Ed would have been pleased that I was on a boat today, I think. He told me once he never went to funerals, that he hated the things. Even memorial services. “Well,” I said, “what do you think should be said on the occasion of a friend’s passing.”
“How about, ‘Call in the dogs and piss on the fire; it’s time to go home,’” he answered.
I thought it was a pretty good reply.