Transformation of Robert Campbell

From Panhandle flatlands to Guatemalan mountains, Houston doctor and artist Robert Campbell searched for a life with meaning.When he died, many said that life was his.

Robert Campbell's friends had a hard time getting from Houston to the little Panhandle town of Claude to bury him. It was St. Valentine's Day, and snow and ice had closed the Amarillo airport. Along with Campbell's parents and brother and sister, they were stuck in Dallas for several hours, worried about whether they would make it in time, and whether Campbell, clad in the white robes of a Dominican brother and resting in an unfinished pine box in the airport's cargo area, would be late to his own funeral.

They might have remembered what Campbell, a physician and artist who dedicated his medical practice and art to the poor, had said to them many times: God provides. The storm abated, and friends and family caught a plane to Lubbock instead. They crowded into two rental cars and drove for an hour and a half to Claude, reminiscing about their beloved son, brother, companion, artist, doctor, humanitarian, social activist and possibly, some of them thought, saint.

The death of a loved one always affects those nearest to him, but Robert Campbell's death rippled beyond his closest friends and family. Before he died of AIDS two months ago at age 39, Robert Campbell had accomplished the work of four people. First diagnosed with the disease in 1984, he channeled his energies into helping others. While practicing medicine in public health clinics in Texas, he had established three medical centers in poverty-stricken villages in Central America, recruiting volunteers and raising money from across the country. At the same time, he had steadily produced paintings and sculptures that expressed his spiritual and ethical concerns. A Catholic convert, he was inspired by the great Christian and Asian mystics. He encouraged himself and others with Gandhi's saying: "God never occurs to you in person, but always in action."

His friends remembered a man who died with dignity and without fear; and a man who, in the final dementia that often comes with AIDS, thought he had returned to his childhood home, and busily gave directions on the back roads of Claude.

By the time his friends and family reached the little country cemetery on a dirt road a few miles from the house where Campbell had grown up, they were close. The obstacles to their journey, thought one of Campbell's medical colleagues, had drawn them together.

Campbell's art dealer, Martha Claire Tompkins, had brought a crucifix of dried hydrangeas and gomphrenas, Campbell's favorite flowers, to the cemetery. The crucifix fit perfectly in a cardboard carton that had held a new stovetop she'd just bought, and she had had to argue with the flight attendants about carrying it on board. Now it rested on the pine coffin that a carpenter friend of Campbell's had built soon after Campbell died.

The officiating priest, Father Michael Burke, had cut a budding branch from a tree in the Campbells' front yard, and used it to shake holy water on the coffin. In his burial sermon, he told a story about a caterpillar who feels the call within to go into a cocoon and, by dying, be transformed into a butterfly. Campbell, Father Burke said, had undergone that process and was leading the way for the rest of us.

Through their tears, the friends looked at the endless, flat landscape of the High Plains, so serene, like Campbell's last abstract paintings. The winter had burnished the green pastures and fields to tawny shades of yellow, gold and sand.

So this is where his journey started, thought Tompkins. Now I understand. He couldn't have come from anywhere else. He has come full circle.

Far to the east they could see storm clouds vanquished by the steady wind. Overhead hung an immense, cloudless sky. The Buddhists, whom Campbell studied and admired, talk about emotions being like clouds. Through the practice of meditation, we learn to let them pass, until we see with clarity our true nature. At the end of the service, three flights of cranes flew overhead. To the Chinese, cranes symbolize prosperity and longevity. Robert Campbell had neither. In the blue stillness, the mourners far below heard the cranes calling to one another.

Robert Campbell lived the last three years of his life in a small, two-bedroom, frame rental house on Yale Street in the Heights. From there he ran the volunteer organization that supported his clinics in Guatemala. He didn't hesitate to do the drudgery. He packed medicine for shipment south, he typed the newsletter, he made the phone calls. From strings stretched near the ceiling of the living room, he dried flowers for his art. In the back yard Campbell built a lush rose arbor and planted raised beds with flowers and herbs.

Today, four Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the front garden, which is spiked by a large maguey cactus and abounds with flowers. Inside, on a rustic table in the small dining room, Campbell's companion and partner, Ricardo Avila, has created what amounts to a shrine to Robert Campbell's memory. He has spread bunches of dried hydrangeas and gomphrenas on a table, and arranged rose petals in the shape of a cross. There is a framed snapshot of Campbell and Avila from when they toured Asia a couple of years ago, and visited such holy sites as the Ganges River, sacred to the Hindus; the headquarters of the exiled Dalai Lama; and Buddh Gaya, India, where the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, found enlightenment. That trip culminated in New Delhi, where they had an audience with Mother Teresa.

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