It’s been just about a month and a half since we lost my dad. And today my parents’ church observed All Saints Sunday, honoring those who have passed on in the last year. It seemed like an appropriate time to write a few words here. As my father takes up his place in the communion of saints … and in the family history … his life and presence are still too palpable and the grief is still too fresh for me to have much that is profound to say. And yet, I need to honor him here, as a vital part of our family history, not to mention our family present, before I can move on. So I have decided to simply share a revised version of the words I shared during the remembrance portion of his memorial service in September:
“My father was a complicated man. I loved him with all my heart, but he was a bundle of paradoxes.
“He was a man of great fortitude and fighting spirit, from his war service in Korea to his valiant fight against cancer, during which he suffered considerably but never gave up, never gave in, and at each step, took the next bit of hopeful treatment offered.
“But he was also a man of real sensitivities, who amazed me with the way he remembered the appearance and songs of most of the birds he grew up seeing in Sioux City, Iowa. I once gave my parents a book about birds that included a button you could push to hear their songs. We made it a habit when I visited on Sundays to listen to a few of those, and he almost always had some new bird he remembered and wanted to hear … at least until his failing hearing made it more difficult.
“Many of my childhood memories of my dad involve him puttering outside in the hot desert sun of New Mexico … digging up rocks, trying to get things to grow, something he was successful with surprisingly often. But he was equally content to sit in the comfort of his home and read. Even during his last week in the hospital, he started conversations with me about books … listing the ones he thought I should read. Crime and Punishment came up a couple of times, and I was a little embarrassed to tell him that I had not read that one yet.
“One of my earliest memories of my father involves him helping me learn to tie my shoe while I was sitting on a stool in a kitchen in Iowa City. He had just arrived home. I have this image of him year after year, leaving for and returning from work with a brief case and a thermos of coffee. It took a long time before I really understood what he did and finally realized that, day after day, as a social worker, he probably did not always see the most beautiful side of life. Much like his war service, he did not talk about it much in specific terms when we were growing up, but later in life he would occasionally reflect out loud about it. I now know that for most of his life he was routinely immersed in some of the most difficult aspects of human nature.
“Like the rest of us, my father was an imperfect person who was haunted by his own unique set of demons and occasionally suffered from what I thought of as a kind of Scandinavian melancholy, and yet he also had a subtle and wry sense of humor that was not designed to impress but was simply a part of his outlook on life. I discussed with my sister last night how impossible it would be to convey it with an example because I did not inherit his sense of delivery. Even in his final weeks of radiation, when he had resolved incorrectly, based on a casual conversation with someone at the cancer center, that he was finished with his treatments, I told him the doctor said he had one more treatment and had to come back Monday. My father simply said of the doctor, ‘Well, he doesn’t have the sources I do.’
“My father loved his family unconditionally, never complained about or blamed his circumstances for anything, and genuinely sought to do good in the world. These were among the most important things about him. He was a huge and important presence in our lives, and while he was unpredictably capable of holding a grudge, he was also one of the most forgiving people I knew when it mattered.
“There was no pretension in my father. He was curious and liked to talk about ideas, and while he had some strong opinions, he really didn’t have much to prove and seemed just as content to lose a debate as to win one … at least with me. Because this is such a rare quality, it always caught me off guard, even in his final years. For several years in New Mexico, he had an old beige pickup truck he drove around on the desert property … and I kind of think he took pleasure in how beat-up and lowly it was.
“You can tell a lot about people by the earthly things they choose to love. My father loved his family. He loved America. He loved wide, open spaces. He loved the desert. He loved reading and history. He loved Shakespeare. He loved pepper or hot sauce or salsa on everything he ate, which was pretty good for an Iowa boy. He loved living, even when it was hard, because he loved what mattered.
“He loved my mother. In his final weeks, I was spending many nights at my parents’ house. It was mostly for the reason I told my mother — in case there was an emergency in the middle of the night — but it was also because I sensed our time was short and wanted to spend as much time as possible with Dad. He was still fascinating company even in his last weeks. One evening, as he wrestled with recovering from radiation treatment, he told me some days he thought he would be okay and some days he thought he was going to die. As his hearing failed, he began to speak more loudly, even in routine speaking. Later that evening, when I was in an adjacent room, I heard him say to my mother, rather out of the blue, “I love you, Shirl.” I’m pretty sure her response was, “I love you more.” He responded, “Not possible.”
“So to my dear Dad, thank you for loving us unconditionally, for your authenticity, and for modeling gratitude for everything that came your way. I promise to honor your memory, to take care of Mom, to do justice to the things you taught me, and yes, to drive carefully … and even to read Crime and Punishment.
“Dad’s life was not always easy, but he fought for it. Even when his ears and his eyes and his lungs and his legs were failing him, he kept choosing to fight for life, which is only one of the things that makes it so hard to let him go. And yet … I also know that he had been growing weary of the fight.
“So I take comfort in thinking of him in a place where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain because the old order of things has passed away. Rejoice in your true home, Dad.”