The following is not a letter to anyone, but the eulogy my friend Jeff Sabo did for his Dad who recently passed on. He touched on so many of the deep questions we all ask when facing death, I thought it a beautiful addition to the blog. Many hugs to you my friend, as you walk the path of grief.
First of all, thank you for being here. It is comforting to know that my Dad touched so many lives, and that all of you have chosen to come here and be with us as we celebrate a life, and mourn a passing.
Despite all of our advances as a society, all of our wisdom, and all of our accomplishments, finding some sense of meaning in death still seems elusive to us. Regardless of the God we worship, or whether we worship a God at all, death remains one of the few great unsolved mysteries of life. So, like most people, I have been trying to make sense of Dad’s death – of death in general – from the moment I knew how this one would end.
It may well be that, in our eternal quest for meaning in all things, we have overthought the meaning of death and it simply “is what it is” – the result of tragedy, or age, or illness, that is meant to be gotten through or past with no additional take-aways. That certainly seems to me the easiest explanation, but it leaves much to fate and little to the heart.
It may well be that death comes once we have fulfilled God’s unspoken plan for us. I find this idea to be soothing, it still leaves the question of just what God’s plan is for each of us. We cannot always know that, of course, and while God may know it still may be a mystery to those of us left behind. For those deeply rooted in faith, the knowledge that God is ready to accept the departed may be enough. I think it was enough for my father. One of my greater joys in my relationship with my father was the joy of watching him embrace faith relatively later in life. The fact that he chose to embrace faith here, in this church, with you and those who have worshipped here before, in a community of love and respect, has always been and continues to be of great solace to me. From a faith perspective, I know that Dad had reached the point where he believed he had fulfilled God’s plan for him, even though he may not have known what it was, and that he believed that he and God were ready for him to take the next step in his journey. For me, I believe that to be true; yet, I still seek meaning.
It may well be that death serves simply as an opportunity to gather together and review our memories, hopefully latching on to one or two that are so special that the thought of them will sustain us through times of sadness or uncertainty. I have so very many of those memories, myself. I remember his patience when I would break windows with hockey pucks or get suspended from school or end up at the emergency room after another school-boy prank. I remember him playing board games or rod hockey with me for hours on end. I remember his grace and fortitude in dealing with some of the curveballs that were thrown his way. I remember his laughter. I remember the looks of joy and love in his eyes as he held his grandsons for the first time. I remember his wisdom in advising me along my own path into fatherhood, cautioning me to learn from his mistakes and to forge my own path. I remember his stubbornness, his honorability, the way he was able to let many of us know with great truth that there were always two approaches to every problem – his way, and the wrong way. I remember so many things that many of you may not know: his singing voice, his deep love of animals, his childhood regrets, and just how far he came on his own personal journey toward contentment over the course of the last 30 years. So many of you were kind enough to share some of your memories of Dad with me on Thursday night, and before I conclude I would like you to just take a moment and find those few good memories of my Dad that you will latch onto and keep in a sacred place.
For me, these memories will serve to sustain me through the grieving that is to come, yet still I seek meaning. At the end of the day, I wonder if death - this death - is not simply a reminder for the living to live our lives with greater attention to some of the principles we all know to be true. My father was a very reliable and trustworthy man who always followed through on his commitments; perhaps we can use this as a reminder to bear up under the weight of our own responsibilities in a more positive and giving manner. My father certainly had regrets about his health, and how some of his choices may have impacted that; perhaps we can use this as a reminder to treat our own bodies and minds with greater respect so that we may keep the vessels of our spirits in good shape for years to come. My father was honest, sometimes shockingly so, but always forthright and authentic; perhaps we can use this as a reminder to be truthful and direct, to avoid pettiness and gossip, and to treat others – and ourselves – with the respect and compassion. When moving about became difficult for him, my father was able to make an enjoyable life for himself through things like coin collecting and the online relationships and community that went along with that; perhaps we can use that as a reminder of the benefits of industry, of community, of thinking positively rather than wallowing in self-pity.
But perhaps I have been looking at this all wrong. Instead of searching for meaning in his death, maybe I should be searching for meaning in his life, for clearly his life was full of purpose and meaning. Let me share with you an example from his recent past.
During a phone call we had in May, my father told me about a trip he had just taken to New Orleans. I was stunned; I mean, my father had not been able to travel for some time, and had been weakened by cancer and the subsequent treatments. But he made all of the arrangements himself, getting to and through airports and on an off airplanes to meet a friend of his, Jose, that he had met online. Eventually, he revealed to me that in addition to their love of coins, they shared another special bond – Jose was born with Spina Bifida and had been confined to a wheelchair his whole life. My father told me about how they had met, and the fellowship they experienced during Dad’s trip to New Orleans.
What my father left out was the fact that they had a deep relationship, and that my father had actually helped Jose purchase a specially-equipped automobile so he could get around. I learned that only after my father’s death, when Jose sent me a note that included the following passage:
Your dad was like a spiritual father to me. I was very fond of him, when he came to visit me, it was the happiest day of my life. My real father was never close to me, and when your dad and I became friends, we shared a bond. He was the father i never had and wanted, Ive been crying all day today because i loved him so much. But I feel comforted to know that God now has him in his arms, Your dad is not suffering anymore, he is rejoicing in heaven, I hope we can keep in touch with each other and get to know each other. Your dad left me his stuffed Raccoon SCOOTER and ive been hugging him alot today.
When I think of my father, this story really captures his essence. Understated and unspoken compassion, humility, a willingness to help and comfort, the thirst for connection. THAT has meaning, THAT has impact, THAT has lessons for all of us, and THAT is certainly spiritual. Leave it to my Father, in death, to provide such lessons for us. Thank you for being here, thank you for the support you are giving to Ann, and for the love you had for my father. It meant the world to him, and thus to me.
Monday, July 18, 2011
(Papa Tom and Chloe)
Dearest Papa Tom,
My friend Ren has a blog where she collects letter to the dead so
I’m writing you this letter as kind of an open letter, knowing
I’m going to send it to her for the blog. Therefore, I guess I’d
better start with some info for readers who don’t know us, cuz ya
can’t tell the players without a program.
Tom is my father-in-law. Technically, he’s a *step*fil cuz he and
Ronnie’s mom have only been together a little longer than Ronnie
and I and they actually didn’t get married until after Ronnie and
I did. But those are technicalities. Tom is incontestably my fil and
he’s been our daughters’ closest and most-significant grandfather.
Period. He is *Papa* Tom and there is no other.
“I’m not dead.” (off-screen voice) [with apologies to Monty Python
and the Holy Grail for the following]
Ren interjects, “What?”
Nothing, I say.
“I’m not dead.” (off-screen voice)
Ren queries me, “He says he’s not dead. This is letters
to the dead.”
He will be soon. He’s quite ill.
“I’m getting better.” (Yes, ok, it’s Tom’s voice)
No you’re not. You’ll be stone dead in a moment.
“I feel fine.” (from Tom)
C’mon, Ren, he won’t be long!
“I think I’ll go for a walk.”
You’re not fooling anyone. [to Tom]
C’mon, Ren, do me a favor here. [to Ren, obviously]
“I feel happy. I feel happy.” (Tom kinda sings)
It’s the drugs, Tom. You’re loaded on morphine, dilaudid,
lorazepam, atropine and who knows what else. You’ve chosen to stop
radiation, chemo, and extreme measures and you just wanna try to control
the pain and die at home. Remember? [to Tom]
“Oh, yeah. I do remember that. Hey, can we say a rosary?” (Tom says)
Of course, I reply. And I, the rabid atheist, begin, “Pater
noster, qui es in caelis…” cuz Tom and I are (in my case, *were*)
both pre-VaticanII Catholics and I know what he wants. After a
half-century of feeling alienated from the Church, Tom wants to
reconnect. And he has. A couple of days ago, he had a nice pre-VaticanII
confession (nowadays mostly called Reconciliation), Extreme Unction
(called Anointing of the Sick post-VII), and Viaticum, which is
Eucharist/communion for the dying. He is spiritually ready for his
journey to Shakespeare’s undiscovered country.
The rest of us are absolutely not ready to say good-bye. Not.
Not. Fucking NOT!
Our culture is saturated with in-law jokes but nothing could be
farther from the truth in Tom’s case. He is a kind, loving, thoughtful,
generous, sweet-natured man, one of nature’s noblest creations. I’ve
had a marvelous relationship with him for a quarter of a century,
sharing good times and bad, happy times and sad, boring times and
adventures. We’ve certainly had a goodly dose of all of those. My
best memories are familial ones, of course.
Tom was graced with a gaggle of granddaughters, so he naturally
called ‘em his “boys.” “C’mon, boys, we’re going crabbing.” “You
boys help get that stuff ready if we’re going waterskiing and tubing.”
Etc. Naturally, they ate it up. Papa was Papa and could do no wrong.
Our older daughter, MJ, and her close-in-age cousin Chelsea were Papa’s
oldest granddaughters and his go-to boys. When he got a bit older and a
little incapacitated, they’d go out with Papa to drop the crab pots,
retrieve the crab-pots, and measure and sort the catch. Crab for dinner
tonight! They were his clamming buddies, going for their limit and anxious
to return home for some fresh seafood.
The bond between Papa and his boys was a wondrous, thick chain of
links forged from love, unbreakable, unyielding, and untouchable. Their
sadness is profound. I have had many a shirt soaked through with tears
over the last couple of days and Papa hasn’t even died yet. Tom has had a
long life and a good one. I desperately wish I could make these last days
better for him but all that can be done is being done and I guess that has
to count as enough. It breaks my heart so terribly that I am unable to
ameliorate the emotional suffering of our poor, sweet gang of “Papa’s
boys.” Their sorrow is vast. Their grief inconsolable. And I am bereft
healing balm for their wounds. This train does not pass through Gilead.
I will not extoll Tom’s virtues here like a grocery list; I would
find that demeaning somehow. They are best summed up in the simple
sentence: Papa Tom was a good man. Really, when you strip away the
chaff, the fluff, the frippery, if you can say that about someone,
you’ve said everything that needs to be said.
In the time that has elapsed since I began writing this letter,
Tom has died. He died quietly, at home, surrounded by his loving
family. I have nothing to add to what I’ve already said, except
for the sake of his reunion with his religion, I’ll say, “Frater,
requiescas in pace.” And from my own heart, I’ll quote Catullus
who wrote these words on the death of his brother, “In perpetuum,
frater, ave atque vale.”
I love you, Tom,
Carmen 101 Gaius Valerius Catullus
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus advenio
has miseras, frater, ad inferias, ut te postremo donarem
munere mortis et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum. Heu miser
indigne frater adempte mihi, nunc tamen interea haec,
prisco quae more parentum tradita sunt tristi munere ad
inferias, accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu, atque
in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.