A Tribute to Dr. Hugh Derby
My dad was an exceptional man and I was, and am, so proud to be his daughter. He was a physician who dabbled in woodworking. He traveled extensively to scuba dive in some of the most beautiful places in the world, enjoyed rock climbing and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. He always cut the crust off of my toast and braided my hair to get me ready for school when I was little. He volunteered as an assistant coach for my brother's track team for years. My dad was slender but strong, always vibrant and extremely active, despite nearing retirement. Daddy ran marathons and I was convinced he'd outlive me! He was soft-spoken, incredibly humble and kind and we were always close. So, when he called me one night in June of 2014 to tell me that he had been diagnosed with ALS, I couldn't breathe. I understood what the diagnosis meant.
God gifted me with an extraordinary father and he taught me so much but in the last few months of his life, in his own quiet unobtrusive way, he inadvertently shared, what was to me, a powerful and unexpected lesson.
My parents met at Howard in the 60's and married right after graduation. They were young and dad was focused on navigating medical school and residency which often left my mother feeling alone and misunderstood and my dad feeling resentful. He worked long hours building his practice and providing for us but their marriage suffered and ultimately they divorced.
Years later he married again but this second relationship, though productive, was strained. I rarely saw them display affection and was often made uncomfortable by the tension and their bickering. They didn't seem in love to me and I didn't consider that I would learn about marriage from them. Perhaps what to avoid and the hazards of the institution but in the end, he and my stepmother personified what I believe marriage should be at it's very best.
Watching my father struggle to live was the most painful experience of my life. In the months that followed his announcement, the disease progressed quickly and within 6 months daddy was using a portable oxygen tank to help him breathe and losing the use of his arms. My dad's physical appearance was changing but the dynamic between him and my stepmother seemed to remain as it had always been. They bickered, she picked at him and I felt fiercely protective. I asked my dad privately if, under the circumstances, he needed me or someone to care for him that had a somewhat lighter touch. He reassured me that that was just how they interacted and that all was fine. I was skeptical.
I flew to see him often and could see ALS advancing with each visit. He had already lost a significant amount of weight and he was losing the ability to tend to his basic personal needs. Driving was impossible, he was unable to use the restroom, to eat or even bathe without assistance. Each breath required his focus and effort. It was absolutely heart-wrenching.
During my trips to visit my dad, we had long talks and in those quiet moments, in his home, I began to see a side of his marriage, through his interactions with my stepmother, that I had never seen before. My dad was becoming increasingly dependent on her for everything and her commitment to him and care for him in the absolute darkest of times was remarkable and surprising to me.
In the midst of this all this heartbreak there was one bright spot. My dad was delighted to give his blessing and my, now husband, proposed. We quickly went about planning our entire wedding in just a few weeks, hoping but uncertain whether my dad would be there to walk me down the aisle.
Daddy still had things he wanted to do before he passed that he couldn't do alone and his wife took it on. All of it! She made sure he could travel to the last few places on his bucket list, arranged a family vacation so that my siblings and I could spend some time with him. She planned a huge "celebration of life" party for him inviting family and friends essentially allowing people to say their goodbyes. She helped him make a series of video recordings, which I treasure, all while tending to his mounting medical needs day and night. He, in turn, dealt with contractors and arranged major renovations to their home over the phone, sensing that she would struggle to manage them once he wasn't around. He saw all of it through to completion. He spent his precious breath and time on the phone with his financial advisor making certain that all was in order and that she would be comfortable. I saw an authentic unwavering devotion, commitment, and compassion that I had never witnessed from them or any couple.
I found this particularly profound given the journey I was about to embark on. When my wedding day arrived his wife arranged for travel and made it medically possible for my father to be there to give me away. He was so happy. They taught me in those last few months what it looks like to truly honor your vows. To see them all the way through. Through good, bad and worse. Through sickness and health. In practice not just in theory. They showed me what I would owe my husband and in doing so gave me a tremendous and surprising gift.
My dad taught me more than I can quantify. In the end, he and his wife modeled what marriage is really about and taught me that people are imperfect but that if you make a commitment you move forward every day with love and forgiveness as your cornerstone.
I'm so grateful for the opportunity to share the memory of my dad and to honor him in this way. He was a good, good man and every day I miss him and am thankful to have had someone like him in my life.