The body of Christ and our body lost a great champion last week. There is no question that he has gone home–without us. His obituary can be found here. And that is one story, but I have another, and that is no antithesis, for the more stories the better. I knew Dr. Cheever a little, we were missionaries, tourists and outdoorsmen together as well as neighbors and churchmen. There is certainly something more real about an event once it is reminisced. I had some opportunity to do this with the good doctor before he passed. We moderns don’t appreciate story as the old timers do, we want plot and scientifically verifiable fact, but they sought joy. They sucked the marrow out of life and made the losses into stories of companionship and the victories into myths of sinful men made great.
Dr. Donald H. Cheever, in Albania.
I grew up across the alley from Dr. Cheever, causing trouble which did not go unnoticed. I remember him chasing me out of his bushes on a number of occasions. He would get angry, but it was warm old man anger. To me he has always been old. I thought that was just how God made him. I was recently surprised to find that he had had a childhood. This is the way of children, we have limited perspective. We never consider the difficulty of maintaining, we never consider all the hard work that makes one old man warm while another is cold and scary. Chesterton said “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things” When you are young this is easy, everything is a new gift. But it becomes more difficult as we grow older. But Dr. Cheever, made it to the end still appreciating.
We next encountered each other as we toured the Holy Land in a group from Grace. I was baptized on that trip and he was the first to congratulate me, with that glow on his face and a warm handshake. Later I watched him sacrifice certain plot points on our tour, as he stayed in the hotel to care for his wife. He knew how to see the narrative that really matters.
Less than a year later we were both part of a small group that was sent to Albania to minister to refugees fleeing from Milosevic. It was last minute, I was only 18 and I didn’t know anyone going except for Dr. Cheever. But I knew that would be enough to make any trip enjoyable and profitable. We worked hard and lived in tight quarters. There were conflicts within and without, we were pushed to the edge. We waged an unfortunate passive aggressive war with our fellow missionaries from Ireland. But as I sat with the doctor a few weeks ago we had a good laugh at my copying of their accent, letting pass any strife that characterized the moment, years ago. That’s how the heart of a saint works the pain is all distilled into joy.
We shared a couple nights in a forest service cabin, after we had skied a few miles in. He kept the evenings warm with his stories, and poems. And he stoked the fire every morning before anyone else stirred.
Last summer I spent a week replacing his roof. I knew it gave him joy to take care of the nagging problem it had been. He was catching light breeze of his age, and considering that his time was short. But that didn’t slow him down a bit. He continued his work at the Church and celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with a camping trip to Yellowstone. I will never forget working that day when they returned. Tired and travel weary he displayed nothing but joy. He couldn’t help but tell me how wonderful marriage was and that he recommended it to anyone. It was wonderful because that’s what he made it. All the hard work and sacrifice, was forgotten.
The last I saw him he suddenly began recounting the poem of Bessie’s Boil. As he recounted the hilarious story I was trying to figure out why he had begun. Oh yeah, he had a boil on his bottom. Which might be the end for someone trying to complain about why God gives us hardships, why good men suffer and all that, but instead he wrote a better story. As the three of us sat laughing, he began to drift to sleep, and I never saw him again.
It is only tragic because I wonder who will replace him. Of course he was one of a kind, but we have a shortage of old men with the faith of a child. We moderns get the story all wrong. In our rush to the plot points we forget what is really important, it’s Bessie’s Boil, dang it.
Says I to my Missis: “Ba goom, lass! you’ve something I see, on your mind.”
Says she: “You are right, Sam, I’ve something. It ‘appens it’s on me be’ind.
A Boil as ‘ud make Job jealous. It ‘urts me no end when I sit.”
Says I: “Go to ‘ospittel, Missis. They might ‘ave to coot it a bit.”
Says she: “I just ‘ate to be showin’ the part of me person it’s at.”
Says I: “Don’t be fussy; them doctors see sights more ‘orrid than that.”
So Misses goes off togged up tasty, and there at the ‘ospittel door
They tells ‘er to see the ‘ouse Doctor, ‘oose office is Room Thirty-four.
So she ‘unts up and down till she finds it, and knocks and a voice says: “Come in,”
And there is a ‘andsome young feller, in white from ‘is ‘eels to ‘is chin.
“I’ve got a big boil,” says my Missis. “It ‘urts me for fair when I sit,
And Sam (that’s me ‘usband) ‘as asked me to ask you to coot it a bit.”
Then blushin’ she plucks up her courage, and bravely she shows ‘im the place,
And ‘e gives it a proper inspection, wi’ a ‘eap o’ surprise on ‘is face.
Then ‘e says wi’ an accent o’ Scotland: “Whit ye hae is a bile, Ah can feel,
But ye’d better consult the heid Dockter; they caw him Professor O’Niel.
He’s special for biles and carbuncles. Ye’ll find him in Room Sixty-three.
No charge, Ma’am. It’s been a rare pleasure. Jist tell him ye’re comin’ from me.”
So Misses she thanks ‘im politely, and ‘unts up and down as before,
Till she comes to a big ‘andsome room with “Professor O’Neil” on the door.
Then once more she plucks up her courage, and knocks, and a voice says: “All right.”
So she enters, and sees a fat feller wi’ whiskers, all togged up in white.
“I’ve got a big boil,” says my Missis, “and if ye will kindly permit,
I’d like for to ‘ave you inspect it; it ‘urts me like all when I sit.”
So blushin’ as red as a beet-root she ‘astens to show ‘im the spot,
And ‘e says wi’ a look o’ amazement: “Sure, Ma’am, it must hurt ye a lot.”
Then ‘e puts on ‘is specs to regard it, and finally says wi’ a frown:
“I’ll bet it’s as sore as the divvle, especially whin ye sit down.
I think it’s a case for the Surgeon; ye’d better consult Doctor Hoyle.
I’ve no hisitation in sayin’ yer boil is a hill of a boil.”
So Misses she thanks ‘im for sayin’ her boil is a hill of a boil,
And ‘unts all around till she comes on a door that is marked: “Doctor Hoyle.”
But by now she ‘as fair got the wind up, and trembles in every limb;
But she thinks: “After all, ‘e’s a Doctor. Ah moosn’t be bashful wi’ ‘im.”
She’s made o’ good stuff is the Missis, so she knocks and a voice says: “Oos there?”
“It’s me,” says ma Bessie, an’ enters a room which is spacious and bare.
And a wise-lookin’ old feller greets ‘er, and ‘e too is togged up in white.
“It’s the room where they coot ye,” thinks Bessie; and shakes like a jelly wi’ fright.
“Ah got a big boil,” begins Missis, “and if ye are sure you don’t mind,
I’d like ye to see it a moment. It ‘urts me, because it’s be’ind.”
So thinkin’ she’d best get it over, she ‘astens to show ‘im the place,
And ‘e stares at ‘er kindo surprised like, an’ gets very red in the face.
But ‘e looks at it most conscientious, from every angle of view,
Then ‘e says wi’ a shrug o’ ‘is shoulders: “Pore Lydy, I’m sorry for you.
It wants to be cut, but you should ‘ave a medical bloke to do that.
Sye, why don’t yer go to the ‘orsespittel, where all the Doctors is at?
Ye see, Ma’am, this part o’ the buildin’ is closed on account o’ repairs;
Us fellers is only the pynters, a-pyntin’ the ‘alls and the stairs.”
— Robert Service
Further Reading: The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton