In this blog, I’ve been trying to write stories that have been “baked” – where I’ve spent the time over the years getting to that “aha” moment, where the laughter has finally come, the lessons finally learned, the tears finally dried, and I can share them with you.
This post is a little different.
I’ve been asked by a number of people to give “hankie warnings” on some of these stories, and in honor of that request, please consider yourself warned.
This post is a little more personal than the others, and it’s a number of stories, kind of intertwined.
As I write this – November 8th, it will have been 10 years since I spoke the words below, in front of a well-dressed, somber group of people who listened, who laughed and who cried.
I had been in that last category for ten months, and on November 8th, 2000, these people joined me there.
It was the day we buried my dad.
He’d been in the Air Force. He’d done his time in many countries. It was his time in the Air Force that had him meet my mom, that gave him stories of far-away places to tell, and that shaped my childhood. Some of those stories I’ve recalled in past posts, some are still, as it were, baking, and will be written when they’re ready.
I was at work on January 10th, 2000, when I got “the call”. Those of you who’ve been through this will understand what that means. It’s actually hard to describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been there, but when I got “the call” – my heart froze, and given where I was, I did the only thing I could do…
…and then I wrote.
I didn’t know whether I’d ever get a chance to tell dad all the things I’d wanted to say over the years – and it seemed that if I was ever going to take the chance, that right then would be that chance, instead of saying all the things I wanted to say to him in a eulogy where he couldn’t hear me, and the words would be empty.
So I wrote a note to him that January afternoon. It’s included in what’s below – which, ironically, is the eulogy I gave for my dad, 10 years ago today.
= = =
That’s what it says there in your program that this is going to be.
But how do you put into a few words the life of a man who was a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father in law, a grandfather, a teacher — and all those countless other things that a man is in his life?
I’m not going to go into the history of dad too much, you all can read that on the backs of your bulletins. We tried to get as much in there as we could. We’ll also have some pictures going in the fellowship hall so you can see a little more about who dad was.
But right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about who dad is.
By now most of you know a bit about how this all came about, and for a number of you, the last time you saw him was in this very church on January 8th of this year at Tom McLennan’s Memorial Service.
Dad went into the hospital that night, stayed in ICU at Madigan until May, during which time he had a stroke and some other complications, and later was taken to Bel Air Nursing home in Tacoma, where he died last Friday.
I wrote him a note on January 10th, when things looked pretty bad, his heart had stopped the night before, and we didn’t know what was going on, since he’d walked into the hospital the night before that, and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I’d like to read part of that note to you, because in a lot of ways, it tells a bit about the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the legacy that he left behind.
1:45 PM 1/10/00
It’s Monday, you’re in the hospital right now, and I’m praying for you.
I have to tell you a few things, just so you know them.
I love you.
— this is so hard to write…
I don’t want this to be the time to say goodbye, but I need to say a few things so that when the time comes, I can say goodbye knowing I’ve told you what I need to tell you.
You know as well as I do that there were a lot of things in our lives that haven’t panned out the way we’d planned.
Because of the time you spent away from the family in the Air Force and at school, I didn’t get a chance to have you around when I really needed a dad.
This doesn’t mean it was easy for you, in fact it was hard. I know now it was very hard for you as well.
But I want you to know that good has come out of that.
I try to spend time with my little boy now as a result, and I’m glad I was able to get my schooling out of the way before I became a papa.
Because you went away to school to improve yourself, I learned that sacrifice is sometimes necessary for future growth.
And good has come out of that.
I learned how much a son needs his father, and I try to be here for my son. So even though you felt very much like you were a failure, you weren’t. You taught me a valuable lesson, one that I will treasure always.
Because of the time you spent fixing things (and the time I spent holding the flashlight for you*)
*He’d ask me to hold the flashlight for him while he was working on something, and being a kid, my attention span was about as long as a gnat’s eyebrow, and so I’d be looking all over, shining the flashlight to what I wanted to see.
I learned how to fix things I never thought I could.
I also expanded my vocabulary during these times.
Because of the way you showed us responsibility, I was able to get a paper route and learn responsibility early, on my own.
Because you helped us deliver those papers on weekends sometimes, I learned that sometimes helping your kids to do the things they’re responsible for doing is a good thing.
Because of the way you told me to take things one step at a time, I was able to build pretty big things at Microsoft when I was there,, one step at a time.
And because you made things for me (like a train table)
and read to me (from Tom Sawyer)
and told me stories (like Paul Bunyan)
and sang to me (The Lord’s Prayer)
and took me to work (where I spun the F-4 Simulator)*
* — in the Air Force Dad was a flight simulator technician — he fixed flight simulators, and one time he took me to work, I think I must have been 5 or 6, and there was this whole line of these simulators — all just cockpits of airplanes, and he, as fathers are known to do, picked me up and popped me in the driver’s seat. I sat there, my eyes huge, as I saw all these dials and gauges in front of me, and it was just so cool and so complicated. — And there was this big stick thing in the way, so I pushed it off to one side so I could get a better look at the dials. I didn’t know that the simulator thought it was flying, and by pushing that stick over I made it think it was corkscrewing into the ground, and all the dials and gauges started spinning alarms went off. I got so scared, I thought I’d broken it, and I looked out at him — he was standing right there, talking to someone else, and with fear and trepidation said,
He turned around, took one look at what was happening, reached in and fixed it. Just like that. He fixed it. I hadn’t broken it. But he just reached in, and with one touch, he fixed it.
and showed me things, (like Wolf Spiders)*
When we lived in Illinois, we discovered that the spiders there are significantly bigger than spiders here in Washington.
So one time Dad was in the basement, doing something, and he called me down. He wanted me to see what he’d found under this can. So, being a kid and being curious, I squatted right beside it, and then picked up the can — to find the biggest, hairiest god-awful ugliest wolf spider I’d seen in my entire life. I jumped up and screamed, and dad was over there laughing so hard. I didn’t think it was funny then, but for years all we’d have to say was “wolf spider” it would bring the whole thing back, and we’d have a good laugh over it.
and surprised me with presents (like at Christmas in 1971 when you told me to clean up a pile of newspapers, and you’d put a bunch of toy trains underneath them)*
*He kept asking me to clean up the papers, but there was always another present to unwrap, another toy to play with, another cookie to eat — and finally, when the Christmas eve was finally winding down and we were cleaning up, I remembered the newspapers and started to clean them up — and underneath was a train set he’d gotten from somewhere, on a set of tracks, just waiting for a little boy to play with them.
and provided for me (helping me get my first Saab)*
*Many of you in this church may remember praying for that very car…
and went out of your way to help me (when that first Saab broke down)
— and the second Saab, — the third one (the fourth one’s out there, it runs fine)
and drove all the way up to Seattle to SPU when I was a student one Christmas to bring me a present — a radio controlled Porsche 928) when you knew it was the only thing I would get.
and visited me at work when I was able to show you where I worked and what I’d become professionally
And supported me in your thoughts and prayers as I became a father in my own right.
You showed me love.
And because you told me, I know you love me.
I love you too.
I read this note to him several times, never being quite sure whether it got across to him. In August, at the nursing home, I read it to him again, and he looked at me very intently while I read it, and as I finished, there was this look on his face, of peace, of contentment, of, “My job is done.” and for a split second, the stroke seemed to be gone.
He then took the note from my hand and read it himself.
And I know that he knew when he left that he was loved, he was cared for, he was appreciated, and that he would be missed.
We rejoice for him, we’re happy, for him, that this ordeal is over, but we’re sad for us, for the big, dad/Gary/grampa shaped hole he leaves in each of our lives.
— I was thinking the other day about the things I’d miss about him, and I’m sure there will be many to come, but the things that come to mind right now are the little things — and it’s always the little things, isn’t it?
The fact that he’d say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” so often that we didn’t realize how important it was for him to be able to say that, and now, how important it was for us — the whole family to have him as a cheerleader in the background. There were times he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do for us, and in his mind, he always wanted to do more — and the fact that he’s no longer in the background, just being there cheering us on — I’ll miss that. We’ll miss that.
I miss his meow — for those of you who don’t know, he had this way of meowing like a cat so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It drove us nuts — and we miss it.
I miss him greeting Michael and me with, “Hello Sonshine”
I miss seeing him snuggle my little girl Alyssa, in his lap, reading any of a number of books to her, and the look on her face that told me of the security she felt in those arms.
I miss him standing with mom, waving good bye to us as we left after a visit. — and no matter where we were, when we got together, he’d always thank us for taking the time to do that, to get together as a family, and to include him and he would always remind us, “You are loved.”
We miss him telling us “Remember, a fat old man loves you.”
I miss him yelling at us to shut the living room door. That’s the sound we grew up with. We’d run out, be halfway up the stairs, and hear, “SHUT THE DOOR” — of course, he hadn’t done that for years since he put a spring on it so it’d shut itself. But I miss knowing I won’t hear it again.
I miss him calling me up at night to tell me there was something interesting on Channel 9 (PBS) that he wanted to share with me, even though we couldn’t be together, we could see it at the same time.
When I was growing up, and I’d be upstairs brushing my teeth late at night, I’d hear dad snoring downstairs, — a gentle snore (at least from upstairs) and I knew that that meant all was right with the world.
I’ll miss that, too.
And even though there are many things we’ll miss about him, I know he’s better off now than he was for the last 10 months.
Some time ago I had a dream — a dream of him essentially dying, and it didn’t look as bad as we all generally think of dying.
In my dream, he was laying there, his body all there, but kind of gray, and damaged. It looked like dad, but suddenly he broke free of that body, and he just kind of came up, there was this whole, healthy copy of him, in living color that kind of came out of him like a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, and he was free, he was whole, and he flew away, leaving the gray, damaged body behind him.
After Dad died, Petra was doing some thinking about what his death was like for him, and the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.
The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.
His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.
His heart didn’t struggle.
His feet weren’t cold.
We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.
During dad’s life, we all knew that no matter where we went or what we did, dad loved us, and I am convinced that up there in heaven, he loves us still.
When the service was done, we headed to what would be dad’s final resting place, and on that cold, clear day, the wind blowing the oak leaves around the cemetery, our family gathered around dad one last time as he was given a military funeral, with an Air Force Honor Guard from McChord Air Force Base, a flag, and a rifle salute.
We shivered as we took our places in the chairs under the portable gazebo they’d set up for us, with mom sitting in the front row. I walked away for a bit to clear my head as the ceremony started.
I’d seen the airman with his trumpet, trying to keep his mouthpiece warm on that cold day, and I knew he was going to play Taps – which I’d learned to play when I played the trumpet in junior high school, but I’d never had to play when it counted.
Taps, originally used to signal “lights out” in the military, eventually became the bugle call played at funerals, where it signaled – or symbolized – a final “lights out” for an individual.
I’d heard it played when my friend Bruce Geller died in 1978.
I’d heard it played when I, as a photojournalist, was covering the funeral of Lee Stephens, a sailor from the USS Stark that was hit by a missile on May 17th, 1987, and each time I’ve heard it, it has been like a knife in the heart for me.
It is a symbol of the end of a life, and of a loved one, where they make that transition from living in your life to living in your memories.
I remember, as I shot the funeral of Lee Stephens, how I wanted to honor the grief and sorrow his family was experiencing, but at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that this young sailor, from a small town in Ohio, who’d graduated just a few years before, had people left behind who still loved him.
I remember seeing, through the viewfinder of my Nikon, through a long, long telephoto lens, the look on this sailor’s mom’s face as the sergeant of the honor guard handed her the flag. It was a photo that, while it was “the” photo from a photojournalism point of view, I did not take. The moment was too intimate, the grief was too raw.
I remember her eyes, simultaneously exhausted, numb, disbelieving, and utterly spent as she accepted a flag from an honor guard member, “…on behalf of a grateful nation…”
In walking away a bit, I had unconsciously recreated the view I’d seen through that camera, the photo I didn’t take in 1987 at that cold cemetery 13 years later, and I was not prepared to see that look on my mom’s face and in her eyes.
But I’d seen that look before, and knew what it meant.
We’d had 10 months to prepare for this moment, but the fact is, we all know we’re going to die. Being faced with it as “sometime” in the vague future is one thing. Seeing it in front of you in unblinking reality is something else entirely.
I saw the honor guard fold the flag as precisely as they could fold it
But this time, I wasn’t hiding behind my camera, trying to insulate myself from the pain of a mother who had lost her son.
This time, while I wasn’t a mother who’d lost her son, I was the son of a mother who’d lost her husband.
This time, I was the son who’d lost his father.
I understood things a little more clearly now.
I understood a little more about how much it means to sit in that chair, and have someone hand you a flag, in exchange for someone you love.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was then that they did the rifle salute. For those of you who have not experienced it, it is very much like a 21 gun salute. Retired military members who have served honorably receive a 9 gun salute, a volley where 3 soldiers fire off three rounds apiece. It is done as a sign of respect, of honor. For those not prepared for it, it can be shocking.
The call was made,
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Three fingers squeezed three triggers.
Three firing pins hit three cartridges.
Three cartridges fired and were ejected.
The honor guard was called to attention, and the command “Present Arms” was given so precisely – they all moved as one. Those without rifles saluted – those with rifles held them in the “present arms” position.
As the three shots echoed away, the only sound left was of those leaves, the movement of cloth, and the click of rifles being presented.
There was a moment where this was all we heard. Leaves rustling, coats flapping, and the stunned silence of those still not ready to let go.
It was then that the bugler, who’d clearly kept his mouthpiece warm, played Taps. He played clearly, with dignity, and with the respect and honor due.
– and through the wind, I heard the sergeant’s words I’d heard years before, “on behalf…of a grateful nation…” drift across on the wind as he solemnly handed the folded flag to my mom.
And at the end of the day, as I watched them drive off, I found myself, in spite of the fact that I had my own family, a job, a mortgage, all the trappings of being an adult, I found myself crying, because underneath it all, I was a little boy who’d just lost his daddy.
I cried for the fact that much as I’d wanted to, there were things left unfinished.
I cried for the relationship that had at times been rough, but had started to mend.
I cried for the relationship that, like it or not, mended or not, was ended.
It is Veteran’s Day as this is published…
For those of you out there who are wearing the uniform, or for those of you who have worn it, with honor, you have my greatest respect.
For those of you who’ve lost your sons – like Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, who lost their son Lee, and so many others, and for those of you out there who’ve lost your daddies, my heart goes out to you.
For those of you who are still daddies, remember your kids only have one of you, and they only have one childhood.
It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing.
Take the time to be there for them while you can.
Love them. Hug them.
Veteran’s Day, 2010