“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”
– John Muir
My father died suddenly on August 5, 2013, at the young age of 61. Aside from what appears below, I have not written anything since this day. What follows was the hardest thing I have ever or may ever write in my lifetime. I hope that by putting it out there, I might be freed to write once again.
On Love and Wandering
A Eulogy for My Father
August 10, 2013
My father was a man who lived life on his terms. I am the one he called Bones. Why Bones? He says it was because I was a tiny little child with the skinniest frame – so much so that you could see my bones. Maybe so, but as I stand before you here today, 40-ish and fitting oh-so-snuggly into this dress, my nickname seems a whole lot more like sarcasm than endearment.
But let’s go with it…
I have been around pretty much from the start – give or take a few months. In the beginning, I was the first born to a long-haired child bride and a curly-headed hooligan. We didn’t have much back then – no, not much at all. My parents married in March 1972 and my father was drafted into the Army soon after. He reported for basic training in Georgia in July 1972 and I was born in late August. As the story goes, when the service wouldn’t allow him leave to be with Mom, he went AWOL to meet me for the first time. The way he told it, when he got back to Georgia, they ran him and ran him and ran him. They ran him almost to death. He survived though. He always did. Shortly after, he was stationed in Germany where my mother and I joined him. We were a family of three children living in very adult circumstances.
After my father was discharged from the service, we lived in a small tattered house owned by my grandmother along a not-so-kind street. It was a place one might call “the other side of the tracks”. I don’t want to imply that it was a mean or dangerous like the Bronx or South Central, just a bit unkind. You know, more like lacking manicured lawns, gas lamps and programmed sprinkler systems. This was the time of motocross, late-night jam sessions, friends and wild parties – really wild parties. I think Mom would describe it as a time when there weren’t two pennies to rub together and Dad would recall it as the time when a full set of drums occupied our living room. I would take naps in the base drum with one, two or twelve stray kittens that I found along the way. The three of us were young, poor and figuring it all out together. They were young times, they were tough times, but I was convinced that I was the queen of our shabby kingdom. Thanks to my parents who never let me know I was poor and partly because I may have been a bit delusional.
Circumstances as they were in those times, we lived mostly on love.
As you know, my father passed away suddenly on Monday. Since that moment, I have been walking around in a fog, mostly disassociated from my body. Do you remember how old vinyl albums would skip when the needle hit a nasty scratch? Well, it seems a lot like that since Monday. Like I am living in that skip. Over and over, like I am stuck in something like a melancholy fold in time. But I suppose that is just part of it and eventually I will move on to the rest of the songs on this album.
As I stand before you today in my skip, it is important that I share my memories. So that we might celebrate something about my father that perhaps you already knew or maybe share something about him that you might not have known. His death was abrupt and we lacked the awareness to settle our poignant truths – something so often part of the journey when a loved one has a long illness. There was simply never the time. When I sat down to put pen to paper, there were so many things, so many memories all with seemingly the same importance. Then, I went through text messages between my father and I over the last six months and the answer jumped out at me, like he was screaming it from beyond.
I just called to tell you I loved you.
(January 29, 2013)
Have I told you lately that I love you?
(March 15, 2013)
Faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.
(March 17, 2013)
Have I told you lately that I love you?
(June 24, 2013)
I love you.
(July 31, 2013)
Six months worth of words that reminded me that my father never shied from this word. I heard it from his mouth almost every time I spoke to or saw him. He wasn’t afraid to tell us how he felt. Some might say that when you say a word too often it loses its impact, perhaps becoming only a hollow expression to those who hear it. Actually, I believe that my father’s emotions ran deeper than most and that these expressions were only the slightest, most visible tip of the great depths of his emotion. It was deep, but it wasn’t always easy.
I suppose it never is.
I thought about the love he had for his mother and father. As the youngest of four, they spoiled him rotten. As they grew older, he was always there to care for the garden when they were too weak to do so and finally as he sat by their side during their final last days.
I thought about the love he had for his brothers and sisters. He always told them how much he loved them – they never questioned it. But he also showed them by building a pump house or mowing the grass. They knew and they know now.
I thought about the love he had for my mother. She will say that even though their marriage ended after 30 years, they never stopped loving one another. Circumstances being as they were, this she knows and will forever know.
I thought about the love he had for my siblings. We are all as different as the day is long and each one of us has our own story of my father. As it should be I suppose. But one thing we share is that we live who we are – out loud – due in part to his love.
I thought about the love he had for my children. After my father passed, my son told me that even though he may not have been there for school plays and birthday parties, he knew Grandpa loved him.
And, finally I thought about the love he had for me. I attempted to reconcile our profound, often troubled relationship in preparation for standing before you today. I soon faced the fact that this is impossible and it will take years for me to fully understand this aspect of my life. But, what I was able to understand is that my father’s love had three forms.
My father’s love had grit. As a child of 8 or 9, he could be seen dragging the family Christmas tree home from the mill miles away and constructing a homemade tree stand by his own hand. Or, as a young father, he could be seen in the shed at the back of our property sanding my childhood bed with those damn scrolled bedposts until his fingers bled.
My father’s love was spontaneous. Like on days when I was 4 or 5 and he picked me up unannounced at my preschool for a motorcycle ride (of course with no helmet) through the East Texas piney woods on a not-so-average-afternoon kind of afternoon. Or, on my wedding day when he attempted to bust me out the door right before I walked down the aisle. Sorry babe, but it’s true.
Finally, my father’s love was misunderstood. Whereas everyone loved him, I dare say no one fully understood him. I believe he had an infinite capacity for love and felt deeper than most, but he also had a thirst for solitude and often lived deep in the well of depression. It often felt like he would push us away so he could be alone inside his own head. He also seemed to sometimes speak in rhymes and riddles. It was like a language I couldn’t understand no matter how hard I tried. I have thought long and hard about this aspect of his love and have some to one conclusion. That is that my father was a poet and his muse was the natural world. Looking back now, it doesn’t really matter for I know who he was and how this aspect of him is also, in many ways, an aspect of myself.
Anyway, it’s all very complicated…
Through it all, I have learned much from my father. Grit, survival, spontaneity, how to live life on my own terms. I have also learned that sometimes love can be overwhelming. Sometimes love can hurt. Sometimes the language of love is felt, not spoken. Sometimes you have to walk away. Sometimes love can even be dangerous. Ultimately, he taught me about the complexity of love. To me, there is something poetic about knowing what I know because of him.
My father and I had a meaningful connection, but we also had our differences. Oh man, did we have our differences. He raised me to be headstrong, which he both scorned and celebrated. As our family of children grew, my siblings were born and life changed, things got infinitely more complex – as it always does. Many of you may know the tremendous battles my father fought with addiction. This addiction drove a wedge between us and over the years, the distance grew and grew. In the six months leading up to his sudden death, our relationship became the most difficult it had ever been, but also the most real. We spoke about truths and we tried our best to heal. Although this process was cut short, I never for a moment doubted his love for me. And I never will.
Toward the end, my father looked to the Bible in his search for truth and understanding. One of our recent discussions reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
I am Bones and as I stand before you today in the skip, I can tell you, without a doubt, that LOVE was my father’s supreme value. Deeper than most, often complex, sometimes misunderstood and always spontaneous, this is what I will remember most. This is also what I hope you remember most too.
I grew up a bit today. As I watched my first born walk away, passport in hand with the bags I packed just so, I felt my legs grow slightly. As he passed through airport security, my heart skipped a beat. As he turned the corner and went out of sight, I lost my breath.
For this adventure he goes solo, beyond the bounds of my watchful eye. This time, he will double bounce with others and hopefully remember to change his underwear. But as he walked towards his adventure and away from me, I saw him grow a mile. Or two. Or maybe three.
Me? Well, I just stood there and grew – inch by painful inch.
The day I met my first born marks a milestone in my life. A day after which, I was no longer the person I was before. An anniversary of my becoming conscious of complete and utter vulnerability. Upon meeting him, I would never again walk this Earth with the same sense of complete confidence. The physical scars have long since healed, but I remain tragically aware of how profoundly wounded I could be because of this most precious being.
My deep vulnerability is packaged neatly and poetically with the laughter – sometimes a chuckle, sometimes absurd, full-on, side-splitting belly laughs. Belly laughs like when we discovered that I pee (just) a little bit when he double bounces me on the trampoline. That’s right, I pee, just enough to make me laugh out loud.
So double bounce away, little man, ’cause the mixture of belly-filling laughter and slight humiliation is truly sublime.