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.

At the burial service, Campbell's friends from Houston shared stories with people who had known him as a boy. Claude, Texas, is the kind of town where a child knows all 35 or so of his classmates, and goes through his whole school career with them. One of Campbell's classmates recalled how awkward and self-conscious she had been in high school because of some medical problems. A big party was coming up and she knew she wasn't going to have a date. But Campbell, who was wildly popular and one of the most attractive boys in the class, asked her to go with him, though they weren't dating at the time. And he spent the whole evening focused on her, making her feel important, making her feel cared for. It was the kind of attention he seemed able to give everyone.

After the burial service, Campbell's brother and sister and father drove the friends around the town, which is tidy and painted and neat as a Swiss village. There was the florist's shop, whose owner gave Campbell petals from hydrangeas that were to become his signature flower. There was the church with a rose window designed by Campbell's uncle, an artist who had studied in Chicago and Europe.

It was growing dark when Campbell's father had an impulse. "Let's take them to the canyon," he said. The Palo Duro Canyon, one of the most spectacular pieces of natural scenery in Texas, was a good 20 to 30 minutes away. There might not be enough time to see it, but they went, as if like Campbell, they were pressing against time. Campbell's brother accelerated across the wide plain to the lookout point. Arriving just before sundown, they got out of the car and looked over the rim.

During the course of a million years, the Red River has cut a deep gorge into the caprock. It is as if the skin of the earth has been gashed to reveal a glorious wound. In the waning sunlight, the canyon glowed with salmon and gold and rust and green like the green of patinaed bronze or copper. The darkening sky was streaked with purple. A full, yellow moon blossomed and shone. A white mist rolled gently through the canyon. Robert Campbell was still with them. They stood there, feeling blessed.

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