Happy Birthday, Dad. If you were alive today, you’d be 82 years old. But instead, the anniversary of the fatal end to your battle with cancer is only four days away.
Before anyone starts to think this post is asobbing lament of a longing child, let me get into the real meaning of this thread.
Dr. Seymour “Pim” Joseph Smith, Jr, DVM to me was not just a great father, but an amazing man who lived a very rich life. The sort of life I only wish I had a fraction of a chance of achieving.
Born on November 9, 1928, he was still a boy during the Great Depression. Though his family was kept well afloat by owning and running their own general store at the crossroads between three small towns, one of which was a railroad center for shipping out one of the country’s biggest sweet potato supplies from local growers. It was at this young age he gained his nickname, early on being inept at pronouncing “Seymour” and instead babbling it out as “Peemore”, his relatives laughed it off and shortened it to “Pim”. He had a brother about sixteen years older than himself, of which I truly know nothing more of, not even his name. As well as his sister, Joy, who herself had quite a life of reckon of her own, having been a nurse and medic who followed General Patton through Africa.
Dad himself, however fought no wars with guns or human enemies. He grew up in scouts and became a boy scout leader when he was older, with many tales of boyish mischief I loved hearing recounted at bedtime as a child. In the late 40s he entered veterinary school at Texas A&M, one of only a small handful of students accepted on scholarship out of Louisiana every year. Even in college, though a serious student, there was time for pranks on his classmates, such as hiding fish around a friend’s dorm room, of which the poor fellow still hadn’t found all of for over a month. He was active in photography for the school paper and even met Bear Bryant when he arrived at A&M to coach football and even kept in contact with him after he moved on. In fact, it was my dad who had sent film reels of a rival college’s plays to Bryant that rose up a scandal when the Sunday Morning Post got wind of it and nearly cost Bryant his reputation due to the paper’s slandering. But Bryant had never looked at the films and had mailed them back to my dad unopened. Bryant’s resulting suit on the Post for it’s slander led to the paper’s eventual end.
Graduating from college in the top of his class, Dad went on to work for the state of Texas, protecting cattle and horses alike and working to eliminate the screworm problem. As such he was the consulting veterinarian on the set of the movie Hud.
Some time after that point, he returned home to Louisiana and set up his own practice. It wasn’t until his 50s that he met my mom and soon married her. They lived in a trailer on the land he grew up on, just down the street from the house he was born and raised in, with his practice in the trailer’s front room.
From there, he began to really build his reputation as the good old country vet you hardly ever see anymore, all while building the house he would live the rest of his life in and that he and Mom would raise me in. I can remember days spent playing outside in the yard until I grew tired and retreated into the sanctuary of his trailer clinic beside the house. Sitting on his desk and watching him perform surgery while I asked a million questions about everything under the sun. And he answered them all with the same patience and kindness he explained everything to his clients about their beloved pets with. Even simple questions were answered with long winded and detailed replies. There were trips to farmers’ homes all over the place as he treated not just cats and dogs, but cows and horses as well, not to mention pausing his work to calm his litlle daughter who’d gotten the heck pecked out of her legs by a rooster none too happy about her attempts at petting the hens.
Then there were the really rough nights of his work, where he really earned his reputation of dedication to God’s creatures. Cold nights kneeling in a muddy field to deliver a calf. Staying up all night, keeping close watch on a dog struggling to survive parvovirus, and crying with it’s owners when the inevitable came despite his best efforts. Housing a stray cat someone brought in on blankets in his own shower and delivering her kittens at 3 am and making sure every one of them found a good home. Then, there were the small miracles… The dog who barely survived being run over and spent the rest of her life in diapers and a buggy he designed to act as a doggy wheelchair. She found herself in our loving home as many disabled animals did, happy and running with the rest of our pets as if nothing were wrong at all. The Pekingese who was kicked in the head by a relative of her owner and left brain damaged, forever running in circles(really big yard sized circles when she was excited and nearly straight lines). The kitten Mom found at the feed store, eyes swollen shut with infection. One eye had to be removed and she saw no more than shadowy shapes in the remaining one, but so sweet and loving she was dubbed Sweety. All survivors who crawled through hell to find themselves in a sanctuary where they were loved and cared for when their own caretakers had cast them out as hopeless causes. From a chihuahua dropped out of a vehicle on the interstate to a baby racoon shook loose from its nest in a hurricane. Sure, Mom and I helped, and he probably couldn’t have done it without us, but we wouldn’t have known such a wonderous life without him.
At his retirement a year before his passing, he was celebrated by the town of his birth and home with a placard of thanks for his life of dedication. Speeches were given by friends, clients and family alike. One in particular, I recall my brother mentioning the time he helped Dad de-scent someone’s pet skunk. His knife slipped and spilled open the scent gland. My brother said he’d never heard Dad curse so much in his life! Sometime during the celebration Dad sighed and said, “Well, that’s it. You retire and then you die.”
We had no idea how true that would become… He continued to work at the clinic a couple of days a week after he sold the practice and retired until we learned of the cancer eating him up inside. Even then, he continued to help the animals until he began chemo and the treatments started taking their toll. I will never forget the moment when I truly realized we were losing him. For years after my own struggle with cancer, I was still getting progressively worse despite being in remission, just from the damage and after effects the chemo had left me with. I had sorely wished my parents could understand the pain and sickness I was continuing to struggle with on a daily basis. As they say, be careful what you wish for… A short time into the start of his treatments, he and Mom had taken the motorhome to their favorite park for the weekend. I had gone to visit for the afternoon, but Dad was feeling too ill. So I helped my mom and uncle start packing the campsite up so they could go. Feeling rough myself, I went inside for a bit to rest beside Dad on the bed. He opened his eyes, looked at me and said, “I finally understand how you feel.” I could do nothing but hold his hand and cry with him. Never in my life had I wanted so badly to retract a wish. A week or so later, he managed to make it to one last Aggie football home game with a couple of friends. About two weeks after, just a few days after his 77th birthday, he passed on.
At the end of his veterinary career, he had a client base of over 2,000 families, each with two or three pets each, some of them much much more. And he knew almost all of them on sight and by name. I saw it every day of my life. The smile, the love and care, the concern… And those strong, strong hands, covered in minute scars up to near his shoulders, all from the frightened and hurting animals he helped, held and healed. To me, they are the most handsome and beautiful hands that could ever be. And I will always remember them in their strength rather than the wasted and fragile things the chemo and cancer laid him in the grave with.