Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dr. George Dalton Long (1956-2012)

Over 30 years ago the movie The Big Chill was filmed in a sleepy town in South Carolina, It told the story of a fictional weekend where the former classmates of a well-loved, but troubled friend gathered for his funeral in order to say goodbye to him with all their heartfelt best wishes and to console each other over their common loss.

Many film buffs will note that Alex, the unseen character whose life was being memorialized was slated to be portrayed by none other than future big screen legend Kevin Costner. Yet Costner’s Hollywood screen debut ended up on Lawrence Kasdan’s cutting room floor, the victim of the director’s final vision for the film.

Like Alex, we all knew George as the very best of our generation, a man whose dedication to medicine, his friends and his family was unquestioned. But unlike the film character, George’s real-life role was not a brooding genius unable to cope with the vicissitudes of life. George took on the task of confronting life with exuberance and his enthusiastic nature carried him in whatever he did. 

Back when the film premiered in 1983, it was almost inconceivable that our group of Tulane friends or George’s friends from Westminster High School would be gathering to bid adieu to one of our own number.  George had just graduated from Tulane Medical School and was preparing to follow his dad and fellow alumnus, Dr. Crawford Long II, as a well-respected and dedicated obstetrician-gynecologist. 

There was little chance we would be similarly affected like those characters in the film. It would be safe to say we all knew this concept of loss was something that would more likely affect our parents. We were ready to begin our lives. We were ready to embark on our chosen career paths. In many cases we were searching for spouses and, possibly, considering having offspring. The job of burying one of our own, we reckoned, would not be something we would have to face for many years down the road.

So, the story contained within The Big Chill of love and life lost and friendships renewed after that loss never really materialized for most of us in real life.

When my wife Sally and I married, we had no way of knowing that our marriage would be the exception rather than the rule. Our ten years together were punctuated by a battle with Hodgkin’s Disease, the birth of our son, and a final battle with MDS that took her and all she ever loved at the age of 43. But during the time we were married, we enjoyed the company of George and his wife Debbie on several occasions, mostly Rolling Stones concerts or NFL games in New Orleans. Sally was a wonderful spirit who loved George’s unshakable persona and her sudden passing was especially devastating to David and me.

When George and fellow Tulane alumnus Charles Driebe heard of my loss, they spared no quarter in making sure they came in from Atlanta and were with my son and me at the hour of our collective distress. That selfless act of compassion on their part has never been forgotten. Yesterday in Atlanta I paid back that debt in some small measure as I attended the memorial service for Dr. George Dalton Long at the church he attended every Sunday.

It is the plain truth that time has marched on and, sadly, it would seem that we have reached the beginning of that epoch in our generation's lives where we will be seeing our company diminish in ever-increasing numbers. We have now raised our families and sent them off to college. In some cases we have married, divorced and remarried. Now, with the release of our friend George, also known affectionately as Corgus, we say goodbye to the first notable of our number who makes the journey we all are slated to take one day in the (hopefully distant) future.

The remembrances at Trinity Presbyterian yesterday were all fine. George’s friends Thomas Calk, a fellow physician, and longtime friend Steve Massell had their turn recalling his irrepressible spirit. Another friend, Dan McGrew had the unpleasant duty of following the first two, who had pretty much hit it out of the ballpark. Yet even McGrew captured much of what we all remembered about George: his idolization of his dad (whose funeral had been held in the same sanctary less than two weeks previous), his love of fast cars (most especially Porsches), his commitment to his church, his unswavering commitment to conservatism, his dedication to medicine and (along with his deep compassion for his friends) his love for his wife and two sons.

Both the two female ministers, one of whom was a nurse and fellow worker at his office, expressed joy as having known George Long. George’s family had made arrangements to cremate his body and so there was no coffin or similar object to take the focus off an examination of his life rather than a depiction of his death. The inside of the church was clean and bright. The mood inside was upbeat and not at all woeful. It was a glorious sendoff for a man who had done so much in his short time span.

While the organ played the “Toccata” from the Widor “Symphony No. 5” at the conclusion of the service, I couldn’t but help wonder once again about The Big Chill. I thought to myself what it would have meant to scores of Rolling Stones fans like myself had the organist at Trinity Presbyterian launched into “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” just as the organist in the film did. I think George would have liked that. I know I would have. Perhaps that was why we enjoyed each other's company so much; we thought a lot alike.

But as the hymns were sung and the eulogies delivered, there was another revelation. I realized that very much as an element of a film, these testaments were, in fact, George's final credits, his end titles as it were. It was time to let him go and to cherish his memory. 

So, I say, rest in peace, my good friend. By comparison to others, your life was way too short, but it was a life well-lived and meaningful. I’ll forever treasure our time together and always remember you.

No comments: