Tonight, my father’s family and friends gathered to remember him. Instead of allowing one person to attempt to sum up my father’s greatness with a single eulogy, we had a few of them.
My niece, nephew, brother-in-law, and partner all spoke, and so did I. A few of the guests spoke, too, including the best man from Mom and Dad’s wedding 53 years ago and a woman Dad hired 28 years ago who said she was closer to him than her own father.
Here’s what I said, including a few lines I stole from an earlier post:
Long before supposedly modern men carried “man purses,” my father carried one, and he had the nerve to call it what it was: a purse. He was being a bit ironic, maybe a bit feminist, but mostly, he needed a bag for shlepping his notebook, pen, computer, and who-knows-what-else. If he walked out of the house without it, he’d say, “Oops, I forgot my purse,” and he’d go get it, and all would be right with his world.
Whether nature or nurture, I inherited his purse obsession. Taking after Dad, I like a deceptively simple bag, especially courier style. When I flip back the flap, I want to see a plethora of compartments that would put a rolltop desk to shame. But I also want it to be easy to carry. And I’d really prefer to find it on sale.
Occasionally, Dad and I would go purse shopping together. He would point out an impressively durable snap, I would find a hidden compartment, then we’d ooh and aah, whether the bag was made of supple leather or ripstop nylon. Times likes these were the ones I enjoyed the most with him. Browsing. Shooting the shit. Exploring possibilities. I sometimes felt I wasn’t doing enough to entertain or impress him, but he didn’t seem to want much more from me. Whatever we were doing, he just liked to have some time with me.
I don’t want to misrepresent our relationship. I actually don’t have a lot of great memories of us from my childhood. He seemed pretty impatient with me at times and, frankly, wasn’t around much due to work and volunteer commitments. During the time we spent together, he explained mechanical things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting.
We didn’t really hit it off until after I moved out and, when I was about 20, came out as gay. I’m sure I was pretty guarded as a kid, afraid to reveal who I was, assuming my father would hate me, disown me, or kill me. The funny, fortunate thing was that the truth actually set each of us free, and brought to life the father-son connection that lay dormant for years.
Openness worked well for us in the twenty-plus years since then, allowing us to find how we’re similar and to appreciate how we’re not. The inherent conflict I used to sense subsided into minor disagreements we would talk about but not dwell on, and a lot of agreement that I wouldn’t have believed was possible when I was a kid. He was still pretty quiet, both in person and on the phone. Having that time of shared silence meant a lot to both of us.
On a few occasions, he would get serious and tell me I could do anything I set my mind to. He pointed out my strengths and possibilities without setting expectations. He thought it was my responsibility to come up with my own specifics. Just because I had his name didn’t mean I had to be just like him. Some people don’t get that. They assume a son should be like his father in ways that are easy to see. If Dad expected that, he didn’t pressure me. He seemed to celebrate what makes me unique, and I don’t question he was proud of me. But he also enjoyed the little ways we’re similar. He loved that my signature resembles his. We both fill the available space with the “J,” “F,” and “B” of our first, middle, and last name, leaving a trail of jumbled supporting letters in between.
Unlike my mom and I, who can battle when necessary, Dad didn’t like conflict between us. We settled into a quietly intense way with each other. We could talk about difficult things, even painful things when necessary, but he wanted us at least to be on the same side even if we weren’t always in the same place on everything.
Dad had plenty of close calls in his life. He survived a fire when he was a teenager, a motorcycle accident when I was a kid, and, most recently, prostate cancer. Some might use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. While it’s true Dad was strong, I’m much more interested in how he was a person who experienced joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments. He carried me along so many times when I needed his help, and as I grew up, he showed me he loved me by trusting me to do the same for him.
If he needed me, he’d let me know. When I came back to visit in March, Dad was already looking pretty worn down. We were waiting to be called in for his appointment with his cardiologist, and the waiting room was full. Mom sat next to him, and since there was no chair on his other side, I stood next to him. I felt him take my hand. I asked if there was a problem, if he needed something. He shook his head, looking relaxed, content. The last time he’d held my hand–well I don’t remember; maybe when he helped me cross the street as a little kid. Otherwise, we’ve touched mainly at hellos and goodbyes. It was the best feeling. I wanted everyone to look at us, to witness the gesture, to feel all that I felt it meant, and we held on until they called his name.