My dad passed away unexpectedly on January 16, 2020. He felt unwell at Christmas and it was discovered he had cancer of unknown origin throughout his abdomen that had metastasized and was very aggressive. He was gone in three weeks time – dying on my parent’s anniversary. Below is something I wrote to read at his memorial service.
As a kid at camp I used to relish the letters I got from my dad. Pulling their yellow legal pad pages from a scribbled-upon envelope, I’d dive into what my dad had to say. A man of few words, I savored those that came in writing. They were a window into his mind…and I was curious.
He would tell me about the happenings in a voice that took its inspiration from Ken Kesey and his stories unfolded in a lyrical and beautiful way. It wasn’t often you would hear how my dad’s mind worked. He kept so much of it inside, maybe deeming the words blunt tools to express a much more wide-reaching and intangible reality that he observed keenly, and often without comment, until the end. He called himself a Buddhist sometimes. I always liked it when he did. It seemed to refer to a belief he had that our moments in this life are just a blink in the yawning span of time and space and consciousness. I believe that. I think maybe he did too. Other times, he would say that we have one life and you live it to the best of your abilities. Do good where you can. Be good to people. And that was also his truth. He was, as Whitman would say “Large. He contained multitudes.” That was really the truth about him. He contained multitudes. Devilish, whip-smart with a memory and a sense of history and justice that only a fool would argue with. He was bullish, comically grouchy, yet so tender that as our cat Smokey lay dying, he fed him tuna juice from an eye dropper. I sometimes struggled to understand him – he fit no stereotype I knew. He marched to a different drumbeat – possibly more of an oompapa beat – or the Czech punk band we listened to endlessly after he visited my sister studying in Prague. He was a connoisseur of culture and the interesting things life offered. I recall trying to explain to him once how rap was poetic – he needed to listen to the lyrics. He should try listening to 88.9 and see if he liked it. He shrugged, unconvinced. But, a few months later I found my station programmed into his car. I remember driving with him on North Avenue, and he circled the block at least twice watching a cop who had pulled over a black man – just to make sure that nothing unfair or dangerous happened to the guy who had been pulled over. He was a person who didn’t make excuses, didn’t complain, helped people, and did his best to be useful. He asked me last summer to help him move some bags of leaves and dead plants out of the garden. I walked down the steep walls of the ravine to gather the bags, and when I picked them up, they disintegrated. They were OLD – must have been sitting there for weeks. I don’t know how long they’d been there, but he thought it was HILARIOUS watching me struggle and curse and swear. He laughed at me! I shot him a look that was decidedly not nice. When I insisted on getting new bags and finishing the job he hadn’t finished properly, he told me I was just like my mother. There was a twinkle in his eye when he said it, and I knew (despite my annoyance) that it was the highest compliment because he thought the world of my mom, Diane.
I’m still in shock about how quickly my dad left us. He used to insist on guessing what was in his Christmas gifts. It was an elaborate show of shaking, weighing, and knocking on the wrapped gift to understand how it sounded, and by extension, what it might be. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a hollowness in my soul. It feels like I am shaking, and knocking, picking up this box of grief to attempt to understand what it is and how my life will look going forward – trying to understand its shape and weight. I wish we could have had 20 more years with him. I wish my kids could really know him as a Grandfather. I wish he had been able to travel more – making friends along the way as he always did – with a fire-breathing bagpipe player in Fremantle, a wealthy Irish landholder at a dance club in Dublin, or a waiter who he tried to sell my sister to in Spain. But I’m incredibly thankful that he spent so much of the time he had on earth investing in me and my sisters and our family. We were so lucky to have him. He was a good man, a complicated one too, but I loved him so much.
On the morning he died, I sat there with him trying to find words to communicate how grateful I was for all he’d done. He stopped me. “Just hugs” he said. Above all, love was what mattered. Fare you well, fare you well, Dad. I love you more than words can tell.