During the planning of my dad’s funeral services, it was suggested that we could choose someone to deliver a eulogy. I assumed my sister would speak, being the oldest, and having always been more comfortable in front of people than I. When I asked if she was planning to do so, she said, “I always thought I would, but I don’t think I can do this.”
“Then I will,” I replied. I don’t do public speaking type stuff, but this was important and I suddenly had no fear. My sis suggested maybe she could manage it if we tag-teamed. I agreed, but then said we had probably better invite our brothers to speak as well. I was sure they would have no interest, but when I mentioned it, both wanted to say something in honor of Dad too.
I suggested we all share ahead of time what we came up with, warning my siblings that if you put me behind a keyboard, I can’t be brief, and that I might have to condense my words in order to give the rest of them space to speak too. As it turned out, time got away from us and we never compared notes. And in the end, the brothers weren’t able to find the right words to formally put in writing. Both spoke off-the-cuff for a minute or so, leaving plenty of time for my sister and I to say all we wanted to say. (She did end up managing her own piece, and I was able to create and deliver my own tribute.) And I swear I wasn’t nervous … until two hundred pairs of eyes all turned to me and the room grew silent. My heart threatened to pound out of my chest as I spoke, but word has it that I didn’t sound nervous. I’m glad. And I’m so happy I was able to share these thoughts about my dad with those who knew and loved him while he was here with us.
When I think of my Dad during the years I was growing up, I see him at the kitchen table in our house in Saint Paul. Ours was a long, oval table with a brown, Formica surface, most likely a 1960s variety that was designed to withstand the test of time, which it surely did. The table expanded with a leaf, making it large enough to seat our family of six, and was the setting for art projects, homework, and of course, family meals. No meal could begin before Dad led us in a prayer of thanks … you know the one, Bless us, oh Lord, and these Thy gifts …
The table sat in our small, crowded kitchen that was so full of life … and Dad was often at the center of it all. The head of the kitchen table is the place where my memory so often finds him.
I see him there on Sunday mornings when I was very young. He’s sitting with our next-door neighbor, Jerry. On Sundays, Dad and Jerry used to take turns going to the Mini Market down on Ruth and Minnehaha to purchase two Sunday newspapers. The “buyer” would deliver one of the two newspapers to the other, and the two friends would sit at the kitchen table and talk for a while over a cup of coffee.
In the evenings, the kitchen table was the place where Mom and Dad would reconnect after a long day of work. They would sit at opposite ends, catching up with one another, or each quietly reading a section of the day’s newspaper while dinner cooked on the stove and we kids watched television in the next room on one of the five available channels. Dad always sipped on a bottle of beer while he unwound after work. During those times, I loved to wander into the kitchen, climb up on his lap and lean against his chest. I would often ask him if I could have a sip of his beer, not because I liked the taste of it back then, but simply because I knew Dad would let me. Or maybe it was because in a family of four kids, all very close in age, it was a rare chance to have Dad’s undivided attention.
During my high school years, Dad and I were the early risers in the family. He and I would sit in silence at the kitchen table while the morning was still dark. I’d race through my bowl of cereal while Dad leisurely sipped on a cup of hot, black coffee that was always filled right to the brim of his cup. I knew I needed to finish my breakfast before Dad finished his coffee. My family will agree, in a family of six in a one-bathroom house, if Dad got there before you did, you were out of luck for a good hour or more. If I didn’t eat quickly, I’d miss my opportunity to clean up before school while waiting for Dad to finish shaving, and things, and taking those showers!
And of course, none of my siblings will ever forget when we got into trouble, the punishing lectures Dad would deliver from his place at the head of the table. Other kids got grounded and had privileges revoked. Our dad had different tactics. He delivered seemingly hours-long lectures, reiterating his points over and over while the offender stood at the far end of the kitchen, wanting – but not daring – to escape, legs beginning to weaken like wet noodles as we desperately waited for Dad to run out of words. This took quite some time! The thought of enduring another one of Dad’s diatribes was enough to motivate us kids to behave most of the time. It must have worked as we all managed to become relatively productive members of society!
Of course, Dad did much more than hang around at the kitchen table all of the time. During his spare time, he loved to be outside. He might wax the Country Squire station wagon, or putter around in the garage. And he was always doing something to make the grass greener, always sprinkling some kind of fertilizer underneath the rapidly growing Maple tree out front, trying desperately to make grass grow among the ever expanding tree roots, and never quite succeeding in that particular area. But the rest of Dad’s lawn was always neat and trimmed.
Every summer, Dad and Mom planted a vegetable garden. A big vegetable garden! In my memory, it covered about a third of the back yard and there was never a shortage of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and much to my displeasure … green beans. Dad loved gardening so much, and was so proud of the annual harvest, that our family albums include as many photos of home-grown vegetables as they do of the family! My siblings will all be nodding at this, thinking of the pictures of the old wheelbarrow overflowing with acorn squash! So many summer days found us kids out in the back yard, weeding that gigantic garden. I hated it back then, fighting off mosquitoes and desperately hoping I wouldn’t encounter any Daddy Long Legs among the green beans. Little did any of us know that Dad’s love of gardening was taking hold inside each of us. Today, we all attempt to mirror Dad’s agricultural accomplishments.
Our Dad was a true family man. He taught us the value of family tradition and the importance holding loved ones close. Dad showed us his love through his silly and teasing ways. It wasn’t uncommon to walk past him in the house and feel a light swat on your behind. When we’d laughingly protest the “spanking” Dad had just issued, he’d say, “Awww! That was just a love tap!”
Every important time in our lives… every holiday or celebration, and every difficult circumstance was a time to gather with family. My siblings and I were fortunate that our parents made family a priority. We were always close to our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and have many great memories of times spent with them. In our adult years, any one of us could visit Mom and Dad and were sure to hear Dad tell proud stories of one of our siblings’ accomplishments. And when we began to have kids of our own, Dad became the proudest of grandfathers, and his grandkids all loved their Boppa. Even though he may not have said so in so many words, our dad seemed to know that in order to embrace life, and in order to survive it, you need a support system. You need family. Dad instilled that in each of us, even if some of us didn’t realize it until much later in our lives.
Most importantly, over the course of his time with us, Dad gave his family a firm foundation in the Lord. During our youngest days, we were taught to kneel at our bedsides and pray before going to sleep, always asking blessings for each and every family member. No meal was ever eaten before we said a prayer of thanks. Jesus, the church, the Bible and God were interwoven in the fabric of our lives.
Dad invited the Lord into our every day. And each Saturday evening, and every holy day would find Mom with us kids, sitting in the back row of St. Thomas the Apostle church while Dad served in many different ministries, before, during and after the weekly mass.
We … at least I … didn’t always appreciate Dad’s efforts to instill a strong faith in us. In particular, as a teenager, I would rather have been doing almost anything else besides sitting in church. I’m sure my siblings and I can all remember times when we were invited to spend the night with friends, or join them on a vacation. Dad only ever gave permission for us to go when we could confirm the presence of a nearby Catholic church and assure him we would attend mass while away from home!
I remember Dad trying to start a faith tradition at home – family rosary night. I was such a brat about it! I refused to cooperate, picturing my friends hanging out down at the park, and I cringed to imagine what they’d think of me if they knew I was at home praying in the living room with my parents and siblings. So not cool! I’m sorry to say that the demise of family rosary night is on me. But it was Dad who won in the end. This past week on Tuesday, as we waited for Dad’s life here on earth to come to a close, Father Joe offered to lead us in praying the rosary. I held Dad’s hand throughout those prayers, and as we finished, Dad breathed his last breath. When I said my final goodbye to him there in the hospital bed, I imagined him smiling down on me from Heaven, knowing he’d finally managed to have me to pray the rosary with him!
I’m proud to say that it was Dad’s strong faith that has had the greatest impact on my life. He knew he was doing right by us, even when I was too young and naive to appreciate his efforts. And I’m so grateful to him for providing the shining example of what it means to have faith and love God. He taught me that being perfect in the eyes of God has absolutely nothing to do with being perfect in the eyes of the world. I am so proud of the man that Dad became in the Lord, and the way he embraced his role as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. Through all the years of change, during times of turmoil in the church, he remained faithfully devoted to his Lord and his church. It may have taken years, but the seeds of faith that Dad planted in me took root and grew into something profound, something that has carried me through and lifted me up through some of the most difficult times in my life.
I loved my dad SO much. I think he knew this, even though lately, I often wondered if he remembered that was true. In the final few months of Dad’s life, during the time since he broke his hip, there were a lot of ups and downs. There was constant worry about our parents’ well-being, and many plans were contemplated for alternative and safer ways for them to live. Being told how or where to live was, understandably, so hard for Dad to accept. He and I were generally pretty respectful of one another, but there was one recent incident where his will and my will for his health and well-being came to a head. Words of anger and frustration flew between us. It was ugly, and it felt awful. For two days, we didn’t speak to one another. (And if you knew my dad, you know it took tremendous restraint for him to not speak a word!)
On the third day following our argument, I went to Mom and Dad’s house and decided that one way or another, I didn’t want this to go on. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dad, but decided I wouldn’t remain silent.
When I came through the garage into the kitchen, I found Dad sitting at the table with his back to me. “Hi Dad,” I said.
He turned and seeing it was me, answered with his usual sing-song greeting … “Hullo!”
I turned toward the refrigerator to take a container of soup out of a bag I’d brought with me and when I turned back around, there was Dad. He pulled me against him, wrapping me up in one of his famous, rib crushing bear hugs.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I love you SO much!” He went on to express regret for what had happened between us and I was surprised to find myself crumpled against him, my head tucked between his neck and shoulder while I sobbed and told him I was sorry too. My sister, Mom, Dad and I spent that evening together and it was one of the best times we’d had together in months. As it turns out, that reconciliation was the greatest gift Dad could have given me before he left us. For a while, after he’d gone, I felt so much regret that I’d fought with him, that I’d put him through so much emotional turmoil, not realizing that precious little time remained with him. But I was soon reminded that none of that matters anymore. My Dad is in Heaven now, in perfect peace, with all of his family members who have gone before him, and with the Lord he loved and served so well during his days here on earth. Our argument, opinions, and the less-than-stellar emotions are the stuff of humanity. And Dad is free from all of that messy human stuff now. The difficult memories are quickly fading away and, as it should be, all that remains is the beautiful love Dad had for us.