(This is part of a year-old series, the rest of which can be found here.)
A couple weeks ago I found myself at the funeral of my dear friend’s mother. I was surrounded by people I had never met hearing stories of a woman I had never known, yet I couldn’t have felt more love surrounding me. This was my ninth funeral, but I had only ever heard one eulogy in my life. As I listened to my friend speak of her mother’s beautiful life, I couldn’t help but realize that my father was not sent off with words from his family. For better or worse, my family doesn’t do eulogies, but, being inspired by this touching funeral mass, I’ve decided it’s time we did.
So to start my year-long series devoted to my dad (albeit a few days late owing to the election insanity), I’m writing his eulogy. It makes sense, in a way, to start here; I’ve just documented his passing, so to write something about his funeral is the next logical step. I guess I just never realized how powerful and meaningful a eulogy could be until this month.
How do you start one of these? I guess something like…
Hello, family and friends. (In my mind, the church is packed with my dad’s business associates and long-lost friends, even though in actuality the people in attendance that day all fit comfortably into two pews, and the service consisted solely of my mom’s family and my dad’s brother and wife.) You all knew my dad, Denis, in one way or another, and I’m sure you could all tell stories of his deadpan sense of humor or his dedication to his work. These are stories I will never know, but luckily I have stories of my own.
You see, there’s a lot I don’t know about my father. Fourteen years might seem like a lot of time to get to know a person, but when you’re six, you’re not interested in your dad’s rich backstory so much as smashing rocks with a hammer to see if there’s quartz inside. At the same time, I know everything I need to know about my dad through his fourteen years of supporting me and shaping me into who I am.
When I was younger, I used to love climbing trees. Being chronically short of stature, I liked seeing things from above, looking down on the world and marveling about how small everything ultimately is. I liked the challenge of hoisting myself up and testing my weight on increasingly shaky branches. I could have lived my whole life in a tree and been happy. My usual haunt was a Japanese maple tree on the edge of our property. I knew it like it was the lyrics to a favorite song, and even now, I remember the easiest path to my favorite branch.
One day, though, I decided to take on a new adventure. I left the comfort of my Japanese maple for a more complicated but exciting prospect: the enormous magnolia hanging half over the garage roof and half over a small hill in our backyard. None of its branches were particularly high, but they spread out like cracks in a windshield, reaching out in tangles across the lawn. I didn’t get particularly far in my quest to climb; although the branch I was on was more than sturdy enough, I slipped. Somehow, I managed to wrap my little arms and legs around a branch that was almost the same thickness as me.
There I was, hanging like a sloth six or seven feet above the ground. I didn’t have a good enough grip to climb back up, and if I let go with my legs, the force of their falling would pull my hands off the branch, too. I couldn’t see a way out of the situation that didn’t involve snapping my neck. With my heart in my throat, I yelled, “DAD!”
I didn’t have to yell. Somehow, the moment my fingers slipped from the bark, my dad was there to catch me. I fell softly into his arms, and he hugged me close to him. I cried.
That has been my father’s presence in my life. No matter the circumstance, my dad has been there to sweep in and catch me before I hit the ground. Even when it seemed like our relationship was based more on silence than words, he was present in a way that most others weren’t. If that were the only thing I knew about my father, it would be enough. While I cherish every restaurant visit he made better by being unruly, that one afternoon he saved me from falling gave me everything I need to know about him.
Nothing gives me more pride than the ways in which I am similar to my father, not just in trying to proverbially catch people in their most emotionally charged moments but in the little things. Every time I bring my eye up to the viewfinder of a camera, I see his eye staring back at me—green flecked with light brown, just like mine. Every time I sit down to write, I feel him leaning over my shoulder. Even struggling in geometry made me smile because I remembered my father telling me it was the only class he had ever failed.
Maybe I don’t know as much about my dad as I want to, but I only have to check in with myself to understand who he was. I share his love for learning and books, his analytical nature, his sense of humor. I share his nose and his height and his habit of eating ice cream in the dark.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that my father was a good man—a man I will always remember for his dedication to me. When I was diagnosed with asthma, he quit smoking. He had tried to do this for decades (unsuccessfully), but knowing that his vice was affecting my lungs, he stopped. He bought the patches and gum, and while he ultimately succeeded in quitting, he did find himself suddenly addicted to gum (after he transitioned from Nicotine gum to Trident), which was convenient as I also had a pretty serious gum habit.
He was not perfect, and God knows I wasn’t, either. But he tried. Every day of his life he labored over choices, always trying to find the one that would best benefit his wife and daughter. Everything he did, he did for my mom and for me. So maybe I don’t know what my dad was like when he was a kid, and maybe I don’t know where he grew up or what he dreamed of being when he was in high school, but I know that he loved me with everything he had.
And that’s all anyone needs to know in the end, isn’t it?
Now if this were a real eulogy, I would have included some of my favorite stories about him—ones that involve laughter and hijinks—but that’s what the rest of the year is for. In this moment, I want to honor his life in a way that would have been fitting when I was fourteen and lost in a world I couldn’t recognize without his presence. The world still doesn’t look the same without him, but the colors get richer every time I connect with him through writing.