Remembering My Dad

A little more than a year after he died, our family came together yesterday to remember my Dad. It was wonderful to see so many friends and family, some for the first time in a decade or more. For those of you that would have liked to attend but were unable, the following was the eulogy I delivered, as best I was able, at the service itself.

Years ago, when my brother and his wife got married, I was seated in the front row at the church with the rest of the groomsmen. My parents were sitting in the pew directly behind me. A couple of minutes into the ceremony, I heard some sniffling, then a couple of barely suppressed sobs.

I turned around to tell my Mom to pull herself together only to discover that my Mom was just fine. My Dad, however, who I maybe saw cry four or five times as a kid, was nearly bawling. And this, after yelling at my Mom the night before because she fell apart at the rehearsal.

And for anyone inclined to doubt that story, I encourage you to swing by the reception after the service – we have pictures.

Anyway, I’m bringing this story up now for two reasons. First, because I generally don’t like reading from scripts and never do this when I have to give a talk for work. I hope you’ll all bear with me, however, as I don’t believe that I have much of a choice due to the second reason, which is that I’m very likely to have a “Dad at Nick’s wedding” style breakdown momentarily.

My brother will talk to you about who my Dad was, and he’ll do that better than I could have. I would speak to you instead of what my Dad would want you – all of you – to know. What he would want you to remember, and to be.

For a guy just shy of six feet, my Dad seemed like a literal giant as a kid. We grew up on stories of his adventures – the postcards home from Swiss Scouts talking about my Uncle Jeff swimming naked or one of his fellow scouts falling down a chimney (but not to tell his parents) were particularly entertaining. It all became the stuff of legends. As did the stories of his freak athleticism – how many people – ever – have broken their dominant wrist, trained themselves to play tennis with their off hand, and made the state semi-finals? The businesses he ran, the rare stories he’d tell from his time in the service – all of it – turned my Dad into an almost mythical character.

Honestly, the man even had a bull whip like Indiana Jones that he picked up at a scout jamboree. It was almost too on the nose.

As the years rolled by and I became yet another surly teenager, my Dad was reduced for a time from hero status to that of a mere man. I focused on what my Dad couldn’t do, or perhaps more accurately what I thought he couldn’t do, and ignored what he could.

Eventually I grew up. I had jobs. I ended up running a business of my own. I paid taxes. I had relationships, then a marriage, then a child of my own. I had to think about bills and revenue and houses and schools and tuition and what I wanted to pass on to my daughter. And I understood how hard all of that could be. How tiring.

And I understood something else: that my father did all of the above, and still found the time to coach both my brother and I in two sports. And serve on town committees. And his church.

When he retired, I used to joke with him that he was the world’s worst retired person, because he couldn’t simply be content and play golf every day, or learn to fish. Instead he became active in the local schools, the local church, the local town, the local food truck and even the local fire department.

The first thing that my Dad would tell you, then – never, ever explicitly, as that was not his way, but strictly by his own example – is this: be of service.

I never really thought about it when I was younger, but looking back it’s remarkable how many of my family’s significant moments were narrated to me by my Dad. For my cousins who are here today: each and every time one of you got into my college, it was my Dad who shared the good news with me. Same with your engagements. For my aunts and uncles, your new jobs. Whether the news was good or whether the news was bad, my Dad made sure I knew what was going on with my family.

He absolutely hated to talk about himself, but he certainly loved to talk about all of you and how well you were doing. He did that because he loved his family, and because he was proud of his family – most of all, of course, his grandchildren. 

He also loved the people his family considered family. He understood, for example, that my best friend, who had the misfortune of booking a vacation for his own family in the Caymans the week before we picked today as the date for his service, was family to me. And so my Dad treated him like family and asked after him the way he would about family – which backfired, unfortunately for him, the time he came home with me for Thanksgiving and my Mom had one of her rare but spectacular cooking misfires with an experimental pumpkin soup served in an actual pumpkin.

But maybe the best example is our wives. He adored you both, and would have done anything for the both of you. He loved the families he indirectly joined. There’s a reason those families are here today, and there’s a reason my Mom insisted that they sit in the family section. It’s because my Dad would have insisted on it.

The second thing my Dad would tell you, then, would be to cherish your family – both the family you’re born to and the family you choose.

After my Dad died, some of my first thoughts were two things.

First, the time that I drove a golf cart into a service ditch full of goose excrement with his mother sitting next to me. On the way home he was apoplectic and swore “we will never laugh about this.”

We laugh about it still, as my aunts, uncles and cousins can confirm for you at the reception.

The second thing that came to me was much less memorable, just a random morning from a couple of years ago. My daughter Eleanor had had a string of ear infections, and woke up with a fever and couldn’t go to daycare on a day when both Kate and myself had work obligations that would be difficult to reschedule. I called my parents – forty five minutes up the road – with no warning, and out of desperation, but reconciling myself to the likelihood that they would have had something else going on, busy as they both were.

I needn’t have worried, because my Dad said what he always said, “No problem. We’ll be on the road in ten.”

I honestly could not count the number of times he – and my Mom – both have bailed me out.

  • “Dad, I need you to pick up a thousand pounds of crushed rock.”
  • “Dad, I have three sheets of plywood waiting at Home Depot.”
  • “Dad, I need help moving.”
  • “Dad, I need a place to live while we get this business off the ground.”
  • “Dad, I need you to rent a wood chipper and help me get rid of this massive brushpile.”

And, my personal favorite:

  • “Dad, Eleanor’s vomiting everywhere but I’m in San Francisco and can’t get home until tomorrow: can you and Mom help Kate?”

When the news broke that he’d died, there were dozens of stories of my Dad making an introduction, getting people a job, talking them out of bad jobs, mentoring them as they progressed through their careers. There were all the kids he coached, telling us that they were passing on the lessons he taught them to their own kids or the teams they coached.

He never did any of this with a thought of reward. He would brush off any gestures of gratitude. Thanks, likewise, were unnecessary. He helped because he could help. That was it, and he didn’t think any more about it.

There are hundreds of other things that my Dad might have told you today, but the last thing I’ll leave you with, then, is that it’s not about you, it’s about being there when the people you love – particularly your family – need you.

He was always there for me, and I’ll miss him.

Goodbye, Dad, and thank you.