My Dad passed away four years ago this month. The date has actually passed… April 2nd is the official date, although my brothers and I joke that he probably actually died April 1st just to be funny. April 3rd is when I got the news, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) is also my adopted son’s birthday. Thus, the date often passes with me suitably distracted with birthday shindigs, and then I have to go down and apologize to the old man.
I thought this year that I’d post the eulogy that I wrote for him… just feels like a nice way to let everyone see the effect he had on me and my siblings. Though I suppose if they look closely enough at any one of us, they can see it for themselves.
My earliest memory of my Father is of him returning home from a hunting trip with a deer in the back of his pickup. The deer ended up in the big deep freeze in the basement, and it must have lasted a year. It’s kind of the quintessential snapshot of the provider… the Father going out to bring home the bacon… which on other occasions, he literally did, since we kept pigs in the early days as well.
Another very early memory is of my Father giving me a BB gun rifle, which Mom didn’t much approve of. Once he’d taken me out to the back forty and carefully taken me through a complete disassemble/assemble rotation, and observed my ability to actually hit the side of the barn, he left me with two simple rules. Don’t hurt myself, and don’t ever, ever, ever let him catch me shooting a bird or any other animal, or I would know the meaning of retribution.
These two images, on their face, seem incongruous… but they were perfect Dad.
On the one hand a responsible provider, willing to do whatever it took to fulfill his obligations and responsibilities as a Father and a husband. Bring home a deer, ride the back of a 4am garbage truck, then spend the afternoon working the turkey farm, only to come home smelling like – well, let’s say he’d rather be on the garbage truck is all. So that we could eat, and wear JC Penney’s jeans, and have a roof over our heads.
On the other, a supremely sensitive and honorable person, who understood the importance and beauty of nature, of sparrows, of cats. He did his best to teach me to appreciate a walk on the beach, to respect and enjoy the power of an approaching lightning storm. He would take us camping, and when the yellow jackets came and buzzed our plates, he would stop us from shooing them away, and instead teach us to take the time to marvel at how their tiny mouths cut away slices of our meat, and then he would set aside a piece just for them, in the hopes they’d be satisfied with that and leave us be. We were, after all, on their turf.
There are a million memories… not the big things, because he wasn’t a man of big gestures; but tiny, mundane, apparently insignificant things… the metallic taste of an apple slice plucked right off the blade of his pocketknife, a single chocolate covered cherry each night during the holidays, the smell of engine oil, two shirt pockets full of every utensil a man might need in the course of the day, a tightly rolled cigarette, a perfect part. These apparently mundane moments, when counted by the thousands over the 44 years that I’ve known him, and the thirty years preceding that that I’ve had the privilege to discover over the past two weeks, have become by virtue of their sheer number a significant thing, a big gesture on the part of my father that demonstrates, I think, what may have been the core of his philosophy.
He never would have called it a philosophy, of course. It’s common sense. It’s something that too many people have too little of. A man should not be measured by the crude exposition of dramatic public display… by his house, his car, his fame, his wallet. He should be measured by the quiet and honorable dignity with which he leads his life. By how he treats yellow jackets, and whether his children appreciate shoes. Going to work every day. Paying his mortgage. Saying thank you, and trying to teach respect.
These are not popular, sexy, dramatic things. These are just the important things.
My father was less than perfect. He knew that. It didn’t stop him from trying to be the best man, and the best Father, that he knew how to be. All the time, every day. Sitting in a trailer in the parking lot of the hospital waiting for my Mom to come home from radiology, and even in that house alone with his cat years after she lost that battle, clipping articles and rotating batteries, he was merely trying to be the best man that he knew how to be. Because the measure of a man is what he does when no one is looking.
I wrote a little something on the inside of the memorial card you all have… I’d like to read it.
You were as true and constant as a tide, as a sunrise, as a season. You were unrelenting in your certainty, comforting in your consistency, surprising in your sensitivity. You were a complex individual whose needs were fundamental, and whose expectations were that we should merely do our best in all things, respect experience, and listen carefully to the patterns of the world. As we look for ways to honor your life and your memory, the most fitting will be to simply live honorably.
We’ll do our best to make you proud.
footnote: I’ve since learned that the deer that came home in the pickup was a roadkill, that Dad had been sent (as a County worker) to clear from the road. That’s how poor we were… and that’s how important it was to him to put food on our table — no matter what.