31 May 2012
I want to thank you for gathering today to celebrate my father’s life. My mother, sister, and I are so grateful to you for your loving care and friendship. I am especially grateful to those of you who knew and loved my father over the course of his long life. I had the great fortune to spend some sacred hours with him this past week and he shared his gratitude for the friendship and love he encountered in knowing many who are gathered today.
In some ways, my father and I didn’t fit easily together. I have so many memories that include some version of him telling me to slow down. Whether it was me racing up and down stairs as a boy, opening a package and assembling something before fully reading the directions on the box, or making any number of life’s decisions, I fear I baffled my father through what he perceived as impulsiveness. I, on the other hand, couldn’t quite understand why he wanted me to wait.
My father was a talker. He solved problems out loud. I solve problems in my head. My father was methodical, looking for evidence and facts in his effort to understand. I’m more intuitive, inclined to trust my feelings more than conventional wisdom. My father was careful and sometimes a perfectionist. I’m willing to risk breaking things as I figure them out. My father loved to socialize and shoot the breeze. I’m a bit more of a listener. He liked to fill a room with conversation. I’m comfortable with silence.
The other night, as we sat together, both aware that we didn’t have much time, he told me many stories from his life, passed along many pieces of accumulated wisdom, and asked me to attend to some of his unfinished business. He reflected on his life with my mother, who he loved so dearly – and with whom, just two-weeks ago, he celebrated 63-years of marriage. He talked with an energy, speed, and passion greater than his remaining strength. Eventually he grew tired and said, “Well, I don’t know what else to tell you. I don’t know what else there is to talk about.”
I squeezed his hand and told him it was okay. I asked him to take a moment to catch his breath, and reassured him that we could just sit together silently. He turned, looked directly at me, so deeply, with those blue, blue eyes. I cannot for the life of me describe his expression, but I don’t think either of us missed the irony. In that moment, somehow our roles reversed, and I became the one saying slow down.
Through our shared loves and quarrels, inside jokes and rituals, we think we know each other. Then something happens and we learn more.
We all take on roles and choose to present just a fraction of ourselves to each other. Being a father was really important to my dad. He was a good father. I’ve come to understand that sometimes I received his way of being a father in the wrong way. He didn’t mean to make me feel eight-years old when he repeatedly told me to trade-in my pick-up truck for a real car. And he didn’t mean to make me feel sixteen when, in his later years, he instructed my mother to slip me gas money each time I visited. He wasn’t trying to make me feel incompetent when he peppered me with questions meant to ascertain whether I was making enough money. His distaste for my taste in blue jeans was less about values than it was about style. In all these instances, he was just being a dad. That’s how he wanted me to know him.
But there’s more, there’s always more; whether we see or acknowledge it. On the day he died, I was blessed to see more.
My father taught me how to use a hammer, plant a tree, and to ride a bike. He taught me skills and he embodied self-reliance — emphasizing the importance of being able to care for the world around us. He showed me how to tie a tie and, through his example, helped me learn to be gracious. These things, and so many more, he taught me as a boy.
Over this past weekend he became my teacher again. He told me that his life’s goal was to build a more secure life for my mother, my sister and me than his father could build for his mother and himself. We both agreed that he had succeeded. I will add that he, and I, both acknowledged my mother’s full partnership in that enterprise.
While I’m grateful for the security he provided, in some ways it’s really just a material lesson. In his final hours he taught me something deeper about what it means to be fully human, what it means to sacrifice, and what it means to love. He showed me himself as a man, and also something of the child who still lived within him in his 90th year. He showed us all his strength, but he also found it within himself to allow me to hold a space for his fear. I cannot tell you how grateful I am.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick I get pretty cranky. I don’t mean to give my dad a free pass on this – he had some dark moments – but in the hours after he died something came into focus. Those who cared for him in the hospital told me small stories of coming to know him over the last weeks. They told me that their time with him was special, that he made them laugh. They told me how much they cared, not just for, but about him. His nurses cried with me when I told them he passed.
An hour or so before he lost consciousness, a minister joined us for a few minutes. My dad asked him about his son, asked questions to determine if they had mutual friends, he asked where the minister lived – as if making a note in his head about stopping in to visit on another day. But there wouldn’t be another day. Yet on his last day, with the very last person he met, he took pains to build a relationship.
This is how I will remember him.