My father crossed over at 3:07am on Friday, May 3, 2013. This morning, I delivered the eulogy at his funeral (or, more accurately, his Mass of Christian Burial). I spent the last few days writing this, and I still modified it on the fly this morning. But what I have posted below is pretty much what I said for him.
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I don’t think I’m leaking any state secrets when I tell you I grew up a little afraid of my father. In the last few months, however, I simply feared losing him. When I was a kid, I once overheard Mom describe Dad to a new neighbor as “the big, mean-looking one.” I’m fairly certain other neighborhood kids also feared him, at least a little. My being so different from Dad probably didn’t help our early relationship either – I was a brainy kid, prone to daydreaming; Dad was practical, down-to-earth, and had a way with motors and machines. I don’t ever recall seeing Dad cry; I’ve been crying since last Wednesday.
But over the years Dad and I were able to bridge the gap between us. Perhaps we each relaxed our expectations of the other. Perhaps we merely bonded over shared loves of music (not that we always loved the same music), film (particularly old movies), sci-fi (he got me into Star Trek, Space 1999, and other shows), gadgetry (he helped me with tools and I helped him program his stereo receiver or change memory in his computer), and, of course, we both loved the Calvin & Hobbes comic and The Big Bang Theory TV show. Or, perhaps, the gap narrowed once he accepted there was no way I was going to walk directly in his footsteps; he could be proud he raised me to be who I was going to be.
“I trust your course is sound,” he once told me. This was after I had earned my Eagle Scout award. Only, he didn’t so much tell me as write that in a letter for me. He also did quite a bit of writing during his last two months, when he had no voice to rely upon. He wrote us many notes, the most common being, “I told you I was sick!” I still have that Eagle ceremony letter, and we saved many of his recent notes. They are treasured possessions, even more so now that he is gone.
But what is gone? The Taoist writer Deng Ming-Dao tells us,
We give death metaphors. We cloak it in meaning and make up stories about what will happen to us, but we don't really know. When a person dies, we cannot see beyond the corpse. We speculate on reincarnation or talk in terms of eternity. But death is opaque to us, a mystery. In its realm, time ceases to have meaning. Death is the opposite of time.
What dies? Is anything actually destroyed? Certainly not the body, which falls into its constituent parts of water and chemicals. That is mere transformation, not destruction.
What dies? Nothing of the person dies. What dies is merely the identity, the identification of a collection of parts that we call a person.
Staying with the idea of transformation over destruction, I will borrow freely from Aaron Freeman in explaining what physicists would remind us about the conservation of energy. Keep in mind, Dad loved The Big Bang Theory, so just imagine Sheldon Cooper delivering this part. Dad’s energy has not died. That is because, according to the first law of thermodynamics, no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. All of Dad’s energy, every vibration, every BTU of heat, every wave of every particle that was Dad remains with us in this world.
Amid the energies of the cosmos, Dad gave as good as he got.
All the photons that ever bounced off Dad’s face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by his smile, by the touch of his hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by him.
All the photons that bounced from Dad were gathered in the particle detectors that we call our eyes, and those photons have created within each of us constellations of charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
From the level we can see right down to the sub-atomic and then straight out into eternity, my father had a profound impact. That impact was due in part to how he lived his life: He worked hard, he laughed much, he loved and protected his family, and he found joy in this life.
But he is no longer in this life. Dad has left this world and its cares behind. We can rejoice that he is free from the ravages of cancer, but we must acknowledge that his departure makes us – those left behind – deeply sad. The tears we have shed, and will continue to shed in days to come, are shed for us alone, shed because we loved this man and miss him. The tears are not for him because this is not the end of his life. Death is the opposite of time, and it is also the opposite of birth. But it is not the opposite of life. Birth and Death bookend a life as we know it here on Earth. So while his journey has shifted to a new stage, it is only at the beginning of that stage. John Lennon once said, more or less, "I imagine that death is like getting out of one car and getting into another."
That, the body in the casket, is not my father. That is merely the vessel – or vehicle – my father took up when he came to this material plane nearly 67 years ago. It is the garment he wore to learn his lessons and do his work here, the work of providing for my mother, raising me and my sister, and guiding his granddaughter Audrey. I do not know what Dad’s next vehicle looks like. I can only hope to recognize him when I see him next. But I do have a strong feeling that he will let me know who is driving. Perhaps I’ll recognize his driving gloves.
Last Wednesday, I read to Dad one of my music blog entries from December. It was Day 4 in a series I called “25 Days of Holiday Music.” Dad had not been able to read it, and I had a real need for him to know it because it is about a song called “The Man Who Would Be Santa” and how much it reminded me of Dad and Christmas Eves now long past. The first verse is tied to my specific childhood memory about Dad – putting the tree up on Christmas Eve, getting my sister and me to bed with a story, and then decorating the tree while we slept. But the last verse … that’s the one that is appropriate for today. It tells of a stage much later in the lives of The Man Who Would Be Santa and his son who narrates the song. This is the stage I was living in until Friday. That verse goes like this:
Now the old man sits and tells of days when time stood still
The hours always seem to fade but the memory never will
All the love that you gave me
All the dreams in the night
And I just want to thank you while the day is still light
But I can see the sun is setting
And he says
All I want is for you to have
A life you love and live
Take from me all I have to give
Because you are in my heart
You are in my heart.
I am in my father’s heart, and he is in mine. He has earned his good name. His spirit has departed without shame. And, according to the laws of physics, I know that not a bit of my father is gone; he’s just less orderly.
Someday, we too, will join him. But today, we celebrate him. We say goodbye to him, for now. And we say to him, I love you.