When I was in college, I took a course called “Meanings of Death.” One of our assignments was to write a eulogy for someone we loved, who was not dead or very obviously in the process of dying. I chose to write about my dad. I bawled my way through the whole assignment, turned it in, and then pushed the exercise out of my mind.
Fall 2013, as my dad’s 60th birthday approached, I pulled out the assignment and reworked it into an unconventional (and perhaps morose) birthday gift. I bawled my way through the revision of the eulogy as well. Imagining life without my dad is like imagining having to learn to breathe underwater. And yet, I know barring an accident there is every likelihood that he will die before me.
Eerily that fall, as I was contemplating my dad’s death, he was dying a kind of death—one of the many deaths and re-births we experience over the course of a lifetime. Thousands of miles away physically, and emotionally living in my world of anticipatory loss, I wasn’t awake to the reality of his in the moment suffering, and only began to understand it after the wave had crashed and life had begun a new.
My dad has always been my person. He so frequently and so consistently intuited my needs growing up that I came to believe he always would. And when, for the first time ever last year, he couldn’t, I was bowled over by a feeling of profound loss.
With the medicine of time however, I discovered that something that felt so damaging and sad, was actually the most redemptive and healing gift he’s ever given me. To know and love my dad as a fellow human being, and not some sort of celestial being and to see what can be born out of pain, has been his greatest gift to me to date.
So for Father’s Day this year, I want to share again, the eulogy for my dad, revised a second time. (and Universe please take note: I’ll need at least one hundred more years to revise it until it just right…so don't be taking him anytime soon)
A Eulogy for My Dad
When you think about your parents, you tend to think their life began the day you were born, but my dad is a great storyteller, and through bedtime stories as a child, I came to know my dad before he was a dad or a husband or a doctor or a farmer.
My dad’s childhood was colored for me by stories of waging wars on yellow jacket hives in the summer, family wrestling after dinner, and neighborhood gangs that could have been featured in The Little Rascals. He spoke of the magic of "Fairy Land," which existed, both in his rich imagination and in the mossy enclaves surrounding Beech Lake. His story of his brief interlude as a burger boy peddling lumps of goo masquerading as meat at Dairy Queen always made me laugh. And details of the great family road trip west, a month living on less than a dollar a day in Mexico, and his motorcycle trip across Europe sleeping on park benches and narrowly evading trouble informed my dreams and passion for travel.
My dad is well loved by his patients, as is evidenced by the outpouring of baked goods and hand-crafts during Christmas. One of his first patients, when he was a Resident in New York, insisted on calling him Snookie. In some ways it is a more apt title than doctor, because the endearment expands beyond the white coat and prescription pad to include the most essential role in doctoring--being a caregiver--a role my dad fulfills intuitively. He knows that being a doctor is a balance of both physical and emotional care, and he is never too busy to listen to his patients. He is honest with people when they are most vulnerable, and he is able to explain complicated medicine in simple terms so that it feels accessible to those who desperately want to understand what is happening below the surface of their skin.
My dad has had many accolades throughout his medical career, but more so than awards or leadership roles or patents on joint designs, the story for me that best captures the heart of his practice is his treatment of one patient’s particular request. An elderly man having a hip replacement mentioned to my dad that he would like to keep his hipbone to use as a gear shifter in his car. Instead of brushing the request off as a bizarre (or perhaps gross) idea, and telling him that there was no way OSHA would allow for biohazard to leave the operating room, he wrote a notice stating that his patient was a “Corporeal Unitarian,” (a term he made up) and he would need to have his bone returned to him post surgery. When the man came in for his follow-up he was delighted to report that he’d boiled his hipbone clean, and it was now serving as his very unique gear shifter. My dad's judgment is a rare balance of head and heart that no rulebook can codify--and his willingness to let common sense and compassion guide his decision making is an example I hope to be brave enough to follow.
One of the most venerable doctors, Dr. Suess, asked the question in his book, The Lorax, “Who speaks for the trees?” I do not know that there is an answer to this timeless question, but if I reincarnate as a tree, I hope my dad reincarnates as my spokesperson. My dad attends to our family farm, both the land and the animals, with the same thoughtfulness and care he bestows on his patients. He knows his cows by name, and he is the only one who can remember the complex (and fairly incestuous) goat family tree. His compassion extends to the rats and snakes that call the farm home too. As he bush-hogs the pasture I always hear him call out the warning, “Run, ratty, run!”
One of my favorite pictures of my dad is him sitting in an armchair in the den of our farmhouse with Refund, the little rejected goat kid on one knee, Amos, our dog on the other, and the morning paper stretched out in front of him. The farm of course presents many hassles, but my dad has the patience and the wisdom to take the long view and to know that feeding a rejected goat kid a bottle of milk and watching her tail wag and her belly expand, or a kiss from the llama Reepicheep tinged with spring onions, is worth a world of hassles.
In a world that spins ever faster towards consumption and destruction, my dad seeks to protect and preserve land for his farm animals and the wild animals. He has never passed a box turtle in the road without stopping to move it into the safety of the woods. He delights in seeing wild turkeys and bluebirds making their home at the farm. And he has given up prime pasture land so that the beavers can luxuriate in their watery kingdom that they've built in Gar Creek.
When I went off to boarding school in Southern California at age 15, my dad bought me a book on California trees. His inscription in the front of the book was “know your world, and you will always be at home.” Throughout my life, he has taught me to love the natural world and to delight in living close to the land. He took my brother and me out on our first camping trip when we were still in diapers and continued to do so even through my surly middle school years when I insisted that I'd rather be shopping than camping. Through these trips I learned that being in the natural world is a balm, and that walking, instead of driving or flying, over land may not take you from point A to point B very quickly, but that the depth of the experience will make up for whatever distance you have not covered.
As a father, my dad is unmatched.
He used to tell me that I was a “genius of the heart.” I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that much of living and loving and matters of the heart I learned from him. My dad has always responded to my questions with honesty—be it my six year old inquiry as to whether or not the Tooth Fairy was real (answer: No) to my twenty-seven year old inquiry as to whether or not anyone really feels completely certain that their life partner is “the one” (answer: No…we recreate the story of certainty later on if it works out, or if it doesn’t, we recreate our story in that vein). He reminds me when I’m at my lowest that we are all broken people, and that all we can do is treat each other well with the knowledge that we will of course cause pain and feel pain many times throughout our lives.
He also reminds me to loosen up. He’s the only member of my immediate family who would consider/enjoy bungee jumping, driving a motorcycle, swimming with sharks, spending a day at an amusement park or setting off into the woods without adequate supplies. He isn’t reckless, but he also does not approach life with unnecessary caution and seek to insulate himself from dangers, perceived or real. Instead, he chooses to be fully engaged in the act of living, and encourages us to do the same.
For a long time my dad said to me that he only had three wishes for me in life: That I be healthy; that I be happy; and that I have children (he would like a grandchild more than anything else in this world). While most girls were getting warnings from their parents about safe sex in high school and college, my dad was telling me that should I get pregnant that he would stop everything to help take care of my child. When my long time relationship fell apart last year, and my prospect of having children in the near future receded, and I was in the thick of lamenting the loss of a life I had imagined, he modified his list of hopes for me to me being healthy and happy, and reminded me that there was literally nothing I could do that would stop him from loving me. And I believe him—because even when I’ve been deeply unkind—his love has been steadfast.
I suppose what I keep trying to get at in all of these stories is that somehow my dad has the innate ability to strike the right balance. He knows how to handle any situation, with apparent ease and grace, and he has taught me seek out beauty and meaning in my life. He is a source of comfort, and also a springboard that encourages me to test out my limits, and his love is a constant pulse in my life.