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A year ago I got a call from my mom at 0300 telling me that Dad had had a heart attack and was in ICU. He passed on at 1800 on September 6th, 2012. Many of you were by my cyber-side as I was going through the worst day of my life. Thank you all for being there for me.
I thought I would include the eulogy I wrote for the memorial we held a few weeks later (forgive me for the length).
Dad was a great man. Not great like George Washington, or Albert Einstein. Dad was much greater than that. At least to me he was.
When I was a kid, and I don’t remember when he started doing this probably because he did it since before my memory began, Dad had this habit of going to bed early and waking up in the wee hours of the morning when he would spend a few hours correcting papers, writing his book or what have you. Just working. Something he did for all of his life. Sometimes he would, for whatever reason, not have any work to do so he would wake us kids up and take us out to an all-night bowling alley, or a doughnut shop (and yes, Allbrights was one of the few on his “list” ), or maybe to the beach just to walk on the sand. The destination was never really the focus of it. It was just spending time together and talking. Or not.
Another memory from when I was young is the fact that I loved to read. I was that kid with the flashlight under the covers reading until the wee hours. In our house as you can imagine, we had books all over, books were a part of my life since I was born, and Dad had copies of all of the books he assigned in class and hundreds of others as well (at least it seemed so to me.) It was like living in a library, only better, because there were no lousy books on our shelves. (And those of you asking if I ever had to write a paper on any of what I read, the answer is no.) He would often say how he was impressed that I did love to read and also how I learned how to write well because he felt that he didn’t really have anything to do with teaching me these things and I would reply that he was wrong, because he did teach me, if not by example he did so by demonstrating his own love of literature, having those books and showing his love of the written word in all of its forms.
As we grew older, for a time we grew apart (as many a teenager and his father tend to do), but Dad and I still had a connection that, despite the dust-ups and turmoil of that age, still persisted.
In the days following Dad’s passing, Kai found this letter that I wrote to Dad in December of 1985, she found it among his papers and I don’t recall ever having written it. As it really says more about him than it does about me, I felt it would be appropriate to read it here today.
(Read letter to Dad here)
I wondered back then why he didn’t just give up on me sometimes. It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago, just one week before he died, that I gained some insight on the answer to that question. We were having lunch together, just the two of us as we occasionally did, and he was reminiscing about his teaching days. He brought up a student that he had had in his class decades ago who when given a writing assignment would invariably write about Hitler or the Nazis and how great they were. Dads job as a teacher and according to the assignment was to correct the paper based on the writing, not the content of what was written. Dad said that this was the only student in his career that he had to have transferred out of his class because he just could not stomach reading what the student had written and keep any focus on correcting the paper. He felt guilty about this literally right up until the day he died. He felt he had failed that student. One student out of the thousands who passed through his classroom, and he still felt guilty about it and regretted not having been able to influence that student in a way that could change his mind. That is a teacher with heart. It now dawns on me that he had the same approach to everyone he encountered, including me. He subconsciously understood that he could not necessarily change a person but he hoped that he could have a positive influence on some of them, and perhaps that influence could bring people to change themselves while at the same time understanding that these changes were not in any way up to him. He lived the Serenity Prayer, albeit unconsciously;
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
He was continuously seeking wisdom, and at the same time he seemed (to me at least) to be dismissive about his own wisdom. He was curious to nearly an obsessive degree about the human mind and what made it tick. He was in the process of writing a manuscript on critical thinking, something he has been writing for the past 40 years or so. Did I mention that he was nearly obsessively curious about this? It is my intention that his writings will not die with him.
Dad was also a perfectionist when it came to his own work, whether it was teaching English, writing his manuscript, or building and remodeling. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that while Dad was working as a General Contractor that his clients didn’t realize that hiring Dad to remodel their kitchen was something akin to hiring Michelangelo to paint your bathroom. I am sure that he frustrated more than one client by saying “I can’t do that. It just wouldn’t be right.” When it came to doing things the one word that he seemed to forget he had in his vocabulary was “sufficient.”
A few years ago Dad and Mom returned from one of their frequent trips to visit the various grandchildren around the country to find that a spring had erupted underneath their house, water coming up through the slab floor, flooding the house and damaging the floors and bottoms of the walls inside. Now as many of you know, Dad had spent the past 20 some years remodeling that house. He took painstaking attention to the minute details, heck, it took him literally years just to decide on the right color, shade and texture he wanted to use on the interior walls. Many of you might recall for several years in the living room how the walls served as his color palette, there was something of a mosaic of colors that would change from time to time as he decided on how to finish the interior. He finally decided on hand-trowelled pigmented plaster instead of paint because, as he said, there is no real life or warmth to a painted wall. Then it became a question of how to maintain some consistency of color throughout the house while having a variety of shading that comes from the technique he chose to use. So in short, this house is my father, personified. And they came home to find it damaged and were noticeably devastated. Well, I offered to help him fix it up but he insisted on doing the repairs inside himself, so I was left with addressing the problem outside which required jackhammering out all of the concrete walkways around the house and digging a French Drain. We had some laborers do the hard work, while I spent most of my time working with Dad explaining my ideas and hearing his ideas and trying to get my ideas to work with what he saw as “right”.
OK, just to explain, a French Drain is a ditch lined with filter cloth that has a pipe in the bottom which has a slope to it so the water that enters the pipe will flow, in this case, out to the gutter in front of the house which prevents the water from flowing underneath the house again and coming up through the floor. The pipe is covered with drain rock which fills the ditch to the surface. It is literally that simple.
Not in Dad’s world.
Not only did we pay painstaking attention to digging the ditch and making sure that it had the proper slope (no less than 1/8” per linear foot of pipe) using a surveyor’s transit a tape measure and string line, we made sure the filter cloth that lined the ditch had to overlap and be rolled together where two pieces came together (I held my tongue and didn’t sarcastically ask why we weren’t sewing it together. He would have liked that suggestion), then the drain rock had to be ¾” crushed and washed granite, lest there be any dust in the rock that might settle in the drain. The 3” diameter perforated drain pipe we used (because 2 inch might not last forever) we had to glue the sections and joints together so they couldn’t leak; “But Dad” I said “it is perforated drain pipe- we want the water to get in!”, so he said it was to make sure the pipe sections couldn’t separate. He also insisted that we install a sump pump between the French Drain and the house where the water had gotten inside- “just in case”- which would allow us to pump any water that breached our subterranean fortifications and be pumped out of the castle Keep.
Some would say he was stubborn and you would be right about that. I remember one time when Stu and Mary were visiting from Missouri and Dad, Stu and I went fishing out on the bay. We rented one of those skiffs off of the Wharf and motored out onto the Bay. There was a fog bank just offshore, and knowing that I stayed close in where we could see the cliffs so I wouldn’t get lost. Dad said he wanted to take Stu out farther and I replied that without a compass I did not want to venture too far out lest we get lost with no landmarks in sight. Dad said “Nonsense! I have an impeccable sense of direction! Besides, the fog is breaking and will clear up in a few minutes.” This kept on for awhile as we were fishing.
Well, he was my Dad and all, and I do love him, but he was wrong and I was right and there was no way I was going to be able to convince him of that, so I gave in and headed out.
I went as far as the Bell Buoy, set the anchor and fished for awhile. Well, after awhile the fog rolled back in, and I saw that the shoreline was getting more and more difficult to make out, but just behind Dad I could still see the lighthouse here through the fog, but that was the only thing visible. I took that moment to strike. With a start, I looked around in a panic, and said “Uh oh! Where’s the shoreline?”
Dad frantically looked around (but not directly behind him), squinting his eyes, then looked up at the fog-shrouded sky for perhaps the faintest brighter spot where the Sun might be, and finally said “I don’t know! How are we going to find our way back?”
I pointed over his shoulder to the lighthouse and said “An impeccable sense of direction my ass!” and we all laughed.
When I was awakened by the 3:00 AM phone call from Mom on the day Dad died I would like to say that I knew it was going to be the last time I would see him alive, but I can’t. As the time passed that day I can’t really remember all that I was thinking. I was terrified we were going to lose him. That I remember clearly. I also clearly remember thinking, as his life was slipping away, that I was losing the one person in this world who truly understands me. That was without a doubt the most difficult day of my life.
I am comforted by the knowledge that he died while living life. He was still in the game and giving it as well as he could, which is what he wanted.
It is said that a man’s reputation is what other people think of him, his character is who he actually is. With Dad, the two were undistinguishable. You may not agree with what he believed in but you no doubt knew exactly where he stood. There was no mistaking that about him.