Friday, September 16, 2011

Eulogy to my father

Since I was about 15 years old, I knew this day would come. As his oldest son, I knew I would have to stand up in front of a church full of people and tell them about my father.

I had a dream last night about my father. And in it, he told me some things he wanted me to tell you. I'll get to that in just a few minutes.

The fact that so many people are here today and that so many of you have come so far to celebrate the life of my father is a far better testimony to his remarkable life than anything I could find in my heart to say. It is obvious by the size of this crowd how much my father meant to his friends and family. He embraced life with a passion that few people ever match. Your presence here today is not just a testimony to him but to a way of living that he espoused.

He set an example that resonated in your heart. You loved the fact that he made you enjoy life to the fullest because he lived life to the fullest and you did too when you were around him. He made life better. Isn’t that what we are all called to do? You are here because you want to make life better too, for your friends and family. You came to comfort us. We all thank you very much for coming. We all are people who wish to make a difference in the world, in some small way because of people like my father. He was one of the best. And we are all part of his legacy.

Many of you know my father as the life of the party, the man with the quip. He had a great laugh and a constant smile on his face. He made people feel comfortable. And as much as he loved life and enjoyed being the center of attention at any family gathering or social event he attended, he was a man of great probity and moderation when he was having fun. His was a life of wine, song and woman. He only had one and he was faithful to her for all of his days. Some of his older friends might have seen him tie one on some night a long, long time ago, but I never did. I never knew my father to have more than two drinks. I never saw him place a bet; he was not a gambler.

He used to delight his children by blowing smoke rings up at a lighted chandelier above the mahagony dining room table in Kidzaplenty Place, the 7-bedroom home they purchased in Ambler in 1963. He’d blow one big smoke ring and use it as a target to fire off six or seven smaller rings that would burst through the outer ring. It was like watching fireworks every night after dessert. My mother convinced him at some point he was setting a bad example by smoking in front of the children, so he immediately stopped.

He didn’t indulge in any vice at all, unless you think of fishing as a vice or a waste of time. If that’s the case, he lived a very decadent life indeed, because (after his family) fishing was his life’s great pleasure and pursuit. My father once told me that “God doesn’t count the days of your life when you are fishing.” So maybe we can take some stock in that today because he would have turned 85 next month. If he hadn’t spent so many glorious days of his life on Moose Pond in Maine or on lakes, ponds and streams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey with a rod in his hand, we’d have had this ceremony for him back in 1995.

Those who know him best – that would be his children and their spouses -- know my dad was one of the world’s biggest narcissists. Let’s face it, you can’t have 11 children and not have at least a little streak of narcissism in you. It worked out pretty well for him. Halloween provides a telling example. I, along with Paul, Lisa, Marianna and whoever else went traipsing through the neighborhood for treats, would come back after two hours of candy grabbing and be told by my father to display our goodies on the dining room table. Without a hint of remorse, telling us he was rescuing our health and saving hundreds of dollars on dental bills, my father would let us keep about half of our loot and take the rest, keeping the biggest chocolate bars for himself, the Snickers, Milky Ways and Three Musketeers. He’d place them in a large 2-gallon potato chip tin and hide them in his office. This private stash of candy bars would usually last him until the Easter candy arrived. Sometimes Paul could manage to suss out his hiding spot and – about a month after this discovery when he’d picked over the best stuff – he’d tell me where I could find it. I always found it somewhat amusing and ironic when my dad would suspect someone had their hands in the candy jar and would accuse us of pilfering his candy!

Here’s another one that my siblings all know and will appreciate. The day after I settled on my home….THE DAY AFTER! …… I got a letter from my dad in the mail. He sent it from Wisconsin and planned on me getting it the very day after I took possession of my home. He was kindly asking me if he could he please use my new, empty garage to store his stuff in. He’d already asked Lisa and Joe and Trudy and Scott and they’d (smartly!) turned him down. I knew my dad was spending about $250 a month renting a storage shed near their condo in East Falls, so I reluctantly agreed to this request, telling him I’d like to keep half of the garage for my own stuff…. The lawnmower, my bikes, golf clubs, etc.

A month later, my stuff was squeezed into a corner of my garage and all the rest of it was filled with a fishing museum full of rods, reels, creels, tackle boxes, beach umbrellas, spare tires for his boat trailer, fly-tying odds and ends, saws, hammers, shovels, rakes, pick-axes, dozens of boxes of nails, boxes of blankets and winter clothes, fishing magazines dating back to 1978, and boxes of bird feathers he’d picked up in city parks or off sidewalks. Bird feathers! I am not kidding you. Bird feathers. When I asked him about the feathers he told me he “wanted to learn” how to make a certain kind of fishing lure that would attract a certain species of trout and that bird feathers were required.

Whenever my brother-in-laws start to discuss the idea of starting a TV series based on the lives of our family, they always revert to a clever nickname for the proposed show: The Borderlines!

I am particularly happy we are holding his funeral service today in this church. Because my father became a much more loving and caring father in the second half of his child rearing days and a better Christian, too. I think his affiliation with people in the peace movement gave him a much better perspective on his Roman Catholicism. They made him see the underlying pacifistic philosophy of Jesus and helped him see how this represented a paradigm shift from the old standards of morality, an eye for an eye.

After they sold the house in Ambler in 1988, and moved to a wonderful home in Mt. Airy, they found St. Vincent’s and it became a wonderful experience for them to go to church here. This parish, and Sacred Heart in Camden, both supported their peace work. Both parishes made very strong efforts to reach out to their local communities and do the kind of service that Jesus himself had done, feeding the hungry and providing shelter to the homeless.

My mother’s acts of civil disobedience were hard initially for my father to comprehend and approve of. It meant he had to do all of the housework, in addition to being the breadwinner. He learned to cook and do wash. He learned to help with homework. He began to understand what it took for my mother to be a homemaker and he began to understand how hard the job was and how many sacrifices she had made for the family for the first 30 years of their marriage. He also had a clearer appreciation for my married sisters, who were starting their own families around this time.

In 1991, my father had come to support my mother’s acts of civil disobedience. And when she decided she wanted to join a group of 75 international peace activists and go to a small Bedouin camp in the middle of the Iraqi desert to provide a peaceful presence between the armies of Saddam Hussein and the armies of George Bush, Dad was her biggest supporter. He became something of a minor celebrity in the days leading up to the start of the war, explaining to local TV reporters on numerous occasions what Agnes was doing and why she was doing it. He was the point person for the local peace community and many of them always remembered my father for being such a strong advocate of such a very unpopular position.

At the time, even I was aghast at what mom was doing. I thought for sure I would never see her again alive and that, once she was there, she’d be taken captive and marched through the streets of Baghdad with a sack over her head.

Not dad. He believed in her.

And he softened my objections to her peace crusade by telling me: “if she dies over there, she will have sacrificed her life for a priniciple.” I never forgot that message and have long wished I had the strength to do the same. Few of us ever risk death to live by our principles. Mom did. And she could do it because Dad had her back. Some of her own siblings called her a traitor. Dad never lost patience with them because he believed in her mission and he had learned to take the peacemaker’s approach to conflict resolution, and even practiced it with his own family.

Mom was in the Baghdad Hotel with international reporters and the other activists the night the war started and the bombs fell. Their attempt to prevent the two sides from fighting went for naught and got very little publicity in the national media. Just like today, the media didn’t want to tell the story of pacifists and protestors who resist the government’s bloodletting. The most remarkable thing I heard from her about the entire affair was how happy the Iraqi people were to see her; how many of them thanked her for coming and trying to stop the war; how many hugs she received from complete strangers. Even Iraqi soldiers came up to the peacemakers and hugged them and thanked them for being there. She told me afterwards she never felt threatened while she was in Iraq, except when the American bombs were falling in the city all around the hotel.

When she came home, my mother was regaled as a heroine of the peace movement in this very church and my father was never prouder of her. And he, too, was lauded for his support of her and his willingness to take care of things back home while she was risking her life and doing the hard work of peace. They grew rich love after that and their marriage became an enduring example to all of us of what a marriage could be.

On Wednesday, my sister Annie sent a narrative to her siblings describing my father’s last hours. She and my sisters Marianna, Lisa and Gretchen were at his side when he passed, stroking his head and offering him encouragement as he stepped into the profound light of God’s love and left this world behind.

I got to see him earlier in the day. I made my peace with him and asked him for his forgiveness for all the times I hurt him with unkind things I said. There were hundreds and some were fresh on my mind. I told him I forgave him for things he did to me and that I was sorry for holding on to those things for so long; things I should have forgotten and let go of years ago. I told him he was a great father, that he had carried a heavy load for decades raising 11 children and that his care for my mother these last five or six years was a remarkable effort that made him a hero in my eyes.

Now I come to the part about my dream. I saw Dad him sitting at a table in a heavenly tavern owned by the Archangel Gabriel. It was called The Seventh Trumpet Taps Room. That's right: Taps Room. He was having a Guinness with Uncle Tom and Uncle Jack. Louie Armstrong was blowing his horn over in the corner, making a glorious sound. But I could see a disturbance in the back of the room and I saw Dad and Uncle Jack go over and break up a fight.

I asked him what was going on. He said, "Oh, it's nothing. Joe DiMaggio and Robin Roberts were having some disagreement about the seventh game of the World Series. Some dramatic, controversial play is gonna happen in the ninth inning. Phils versus Yanks."

"Can you please tell me who won?" I asked him.

"No," he said. "The baseball god's don't tell us who wins."

"Doesn't Jesus know? Can't he tell you?"

"No. He doesn't want to know. He says the games are more fun when he doesn't know who wins them."

"You know, Dad. If you can find out who won and let me know, we could pay for the party after the service."

He said he really didn't know. Then he said he already formed a prayer group in heaven. They sit around telling stories and singing songs and praying for all of you down here. He said he calls them 'Charlie's Angels.' Aunt Biz is there and Aunt Delores and Aunt Natalie and Grandmom.

And then he told me what he wanted me to tell you. He said to tell you "Don't be sad. I am in a better place. REJOICE! I am in heaven! And I am here for you! You have an advocate in heaven now! Soon, I will see you all and you can be in Charlie's Angel's, too. When it is your turn to reach for the stars, to go to the light of eternal love, I will be there waiting for you. Rejoice! Welcome to the family of man!"

You are Dad's legacy. All of us here today: we are Dad's legacy.