Note: Dr. Chuck Carter served on the board or advisory board since early 2003. He passed away on October 2, 2012.
At RMHC, the board member selection process has several steps—starting with a “get to know you” interview. Chuck was introduced to me by his long-time colleague and friend, Dr. Joanne Jene (who had recently joined the board). He was fond of saying afterword that, in all his years of community service, he had never been grilled so intensely. Which is not how I remember it! What I recall is a pleasant encounter with a compelling man.
The next day, I received this e-mail from Chuck (which I’m glad I saved):
I was born and raised in Portland (68 years ago), went to Willamette University, Oregon Medical School, interned at Dartmouth Medical School Hospital, and then did a residency in Ophthalmology at the University of Minnesota Hospitals. Practiced Ophthalmology in Vancouver for 31 years. During that time I served on the Red Cross Board, Southwest Washington Hospitals Board, Board of Global Ministries for the Methodist Church for Washington (a grant issuing board), Salvation Army board (president two years), and on the Vancouver Counseling Center Board. I also went as a volunteer medical missionary for short term (3-4 weeks) to Haiti nine times, Sierra Leone, West Africa, three times, east Europe twice, and Egypt and Ecuador as a volunteer teacher. Joyce and I have been married 44 years and have three married children and six grandchildren (who I care for regularly). Joyce is a musician and has taught music both in the school system and mainly piano lessons in our home.
And then this ending:
I don’t mean to be tooting my horn. Just thought this information might be helpful before we meet again.
In fact, he wasn’t tooting his own horn. In fact, that was just a short, simple biography—which he hoped would be sufficient to qualify him for board service. During the ensuing years, I LOVED hearing the stories that brought Chuck’s bio to life—of the friends he made throughout the world, particularly in Haiti and Africa…third-world countries where he cared for the poorest of the poor in the most remote villages, without any of the amenities we consider essential—fresh water, a hot shower, electricity.
While Chuck and I shared countless experiences, I’ll remember him most vividly in the atrium of Legacy Emanuel Hospital—the site of our first encounter and the place we continued to meet about twice a month—right up until three days before what turned out to be his final surgery. It didn’t take much for Chuck to be content. A donut, a drink, and an opportunity to either converse or contribute.
He loved his children dearly—a love that was extended to their spouses as each of them married. He was delighted by his grandchildren. But he really loved Joyce. And he was deeply grateful for her. He never failed to tell me that—even when they weren’t seeing eye-to-eye—a rare occurrence which was invariably tipped off by his referring to her as “Mrs. Carter.” But even a minor tension with Mrs. Carter was an opportunity for Chuck to learn and grow.
In the early 1900s, the American author and educator, Henry van Dyke, wrote this, which certainly applies to Chuck:
Our life is not a mere fact; it is a movement, a tendency, a steady, ceaseless progress toward an unseen goal. To desire and strive to be of some service to the world, to aim at doing something which shall really increase the happiness and welfare and virtue of mankind—this is a choice, which is possible for all of us, and surely it is a good haven to sail for.
As he was sailing toward that good haven, one goal clearly eluded Chuck. He simply couldn’t stop accumulating books. He made a noble attempt to whittle down his over-sized library when he and Joyce moved last year—giving a fair number to friends. Unfortunately, re-settling turned out to be synonymous with re-stocking!
I’m especially grateful for the last book Chuck gave me in late August. It was one he had just recently acquired—and was already distributing liberally. The title says it all: The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness—Preparing to Practice.
Chuck so desired to understand things. One of his many graces was a complete comfort with questions—or put another way, an ability to abide uncertainty. As a doctor, Chuck saw things science couldn’t explain. As a believer, he felt things religion couldn’t explain. So, his life was a perpetual quest.
Chuck remained curious to the end. His appetite for spiritual questions was insatiable. During our final conversation, I suggested that he’d soon be getting some answers. To which, with a gleam in his eye, he replied, “And I won’t be coming back to share them!”
The 18th century poet, Robert Burns, captured Chuck’s essence in this short statement: “The heart benevolent and kind the most resembles God.”
Everyone recognized this quality in Chuck. My single wistful thought about him is that he never gave himself enough credit for his inherent benevolence and kindness—at least not to the degree we did. He never fully appreciated his own grace.
The great irony of Chuck’s life is that he manifested that which he so earnestly sought—the palpable yet mysterious presence of Spirit. He was a living witness to the incomprehensible hand of the Divine at play in the world.
The contemporary poet and philosopher, Mark Nepo, makes this observation:
We come with all these parts and no instruction how they go together. The instructions are in the living. For as the Earth was begun like a dish breaking, eternity is that scene slowly reversing and you and I and the things we’re drawn to are merely the pieces of God un-breaking back together.
In the end, no matter what the biological cause of death, Chuck’s heart did not fail him. His heart remained strong and true to his family, his friends, and his faith. It was just time for him to un-break his way home.
What I know is that Chuck is at peace. We’re going to struggle for a while. But he’s experiencing the serenity he so deserves—emotionally, physically, spiritually. That, at least, is a consolation.
He has earned his rest.
We go on living.
We must continue living—for that is our part in this grand game.
As we move on,
we do well to remember Chuck.
We do better to emulate him.
He loved others with clarity and care.
Let us have that same vitality—and be to each other as he was to us: a great gift of life.
That, surely, is what he would want.
(This musing is excerpted from remarks made at the memorial service for Chuck on October 12. For the entire text, please e-mail Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.)