I presided at my father’s funeral a week ago today. He died Easter Day while I was traveling with my family to be with him. Even though I didn’t get to say one last good-bye in person, these past months I saw him quite a few times and felt his love and grace.
Many have commented on my ability to do my dad’s funeral and give his eulogy. Honestly, it was an honor. Difficult to be sure, but my last tribute to a great man.
Here are the words I shared last week with the folks who came out to my Dad’s funeral.
As you can imagine in my role as a priest, I do quite a few funerals. Some might see it as an occupational hazard, but any clergy person worth their weight in salt will tell you they prefer funerals to weddings; there are no bridezillas when you bury someone. When I lead families into my study, I know how difficult it is for them as they try to piece together the past days and weeks which all went too fast. They think about things spoken, and things left unspoken with their loved ones. Memories of past years. And often for sons who bury their fathers, a desire to know that they’ve lived up to their expectations.
Inevitably part of the conversation I have is about those relationships, and the hurts and joys that have taken center stage. Like the twenty-something son who had three younger brothers. His life didn’t follow the trajectory his father would have hoped, and he sought to be reconciled when his dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It never happened, and I remember holding his hand, crying together, over his loss.
Another time, I remember the joy a step-son felt when we met in my office. While he couldn’t fathom burying his step-dad so early, he exuded gratitude for this man who married his mother when he was just a young boy. He found a true dad in his life after his biological father had run off soon after he was born.
I experienced the pain of a fractured family when two older sons each met with me individually to plan their father’s funeral. Each felt the other had taken advantage of dad, and they despised one another. I just quietly prayed that they might find peace.
Each time, as these sons talk with me about sending off their fathers with a eulogy, I give the same advice. Tell stories that you remember about your dad that will bring him to life. Be sure to type it up, in case you break down and can’t make it through, so someone else can finish for you. Try to keep it to a couple of pages, otherwise you may ramble. And I always follow it up with a couple of pointers on public speaking, and then say a prayer with them.
My earliest memories of Dad are of sharing the mornings together during the summer. We were both early risers, and it was my time to be alone with him while the rest of my siblings and mom slept in. We often followed the same routine. He would get me a bowl from the high cupboard, and I would grab a spoon and the cereal I wanted. We would sit at one end of the huge table in our kitchen, he drinking his coffee and I slurping my Cap’n Crunch. We talked about whatever was important to a boy of five—like the huge bullfrog hanging out in the ditch—and then sat in the quiet together. Soon enough Dad would put his cup in the sink so he could get off to work, and I would carry over my bowl.
We followed this script religiously, until I discovered one afternoon with the help of my siblings that I could climb onto the counter and get my own bowl. The next morning when Dad asked if I wanted cereal, I told him I could get my own bowl now and no longer needed his help. He watched as I deftly scrambled onto the counter, stood up and took down a bowl. Years later he told me how hard that day was; he knew I was growing up, but he wanted time to slow down a little bit so he could cherish it a bit longer. I was just excited to do it myself.
Dad and Mom met not at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, but a party thrown by one of their mutual friends on St. Patrick’s Day. They both had come with other dates. Dad remembers meeting Mom that night, and he was smitten with her. If pressed, he would tell you that it was her legs that he noticed, an asset that remained with her for her entire life. God help the woman he came with, because Dad obviously paid her no mind. The following week he had gotten a blind date set up with Betty. As she told the story, she didn’t even remember meeting him at the party, but she was a looker and he couldn’t get her out of his mind. They hit it off and were married eight months later.
Dad was a horrible cook. There is no polite way to say this. It isn’t that he couldn’t cook if he needed to, but the results were, putting it politely, less than palatable. I remember one horrifying time in particular when Dad traveled with me to a boys’ weekend trip with our church, and he offered to help with the food. We had hot dogs the night before, something even he could handle. But the next morning as he took his spot in the kitchen, he noticed a tray of gray, wrinkled dogs leftover in the fridge. Not wanting seemingly questionable food to go to waste, he cut those hot dogs up and tossed them into the scrambled eggs. I think that was the only time they ran out of oatmeal on one of those retreats. If nothing else, I can say thank you to him for his lack of culinary prowess. Mom made dang sure none of her sons would follow in his cooking footsteps, and to this day all of her children are excellent cooks.
I cannot speak about my dad without also speaking about LaBelle Electric. He struck out on his own the year before I was born, so I don’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t self-employed. I remember the red bat phone that sat on the corner of the long vinyl booth in our kitchen. It was the business line, and he would get emergency calls on it. Of course I remember learning the trade, taking my place alongside my brothers as the one small enough to climb into a blistering hot attic full of insulation to run romex or help troubleshoot some problem. I hated those evenings afterward dealing with shards of invisible fiberglass in my arms. I have distinct memories of working as his helper watching him read a schematic for a press in a machine shop, his glasses taken off and stowed in the bottom of the electrical panel, and sweat dripping of his nose—I always wondered if that excessive liquid would be a bad thing one day around all that electricity. And I would always be in awe when he figured out the problem, found the parts he needed and got the machine up and running.
Dad exuded generosity. He helped anyone he felt was in need, giving his time, his money, his advice, whatever he could do to help. I heard the story last night of how he helped a waitress at a restaurant he frequented. The waitress was a single mom of four, and her hot water tank had gone out. Dad said he’d take care of it, and the guy he was eating with offered to help too. He bought the new tank and put it in for her. I remember driving with him to a Saturday breakfast that he had with some other men while living in Charlotte. As he got off the highway, there was a homeless man standing there. He rolled down his window and handed him a $20 and then spoke with the man until the light changed. This was a weekly occurrence I came to find out. He did it with us as his children and with countless others, and I know he touched many of you with that generosity as well.
I cannot speak about my father without mentioning his deep faith. In January of 1978 he had a significant conversion experience and dedicated his life to following Jesus. And he made sure that he told anyone and everyone about his faith as well. Subtlety was not his specialty; he was about as delicate as an 800 pound gorilla. If he felt led to share about his faith with you, then, by golly, you were gonna hear it. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if it made me as a priest and believer uncomfortable from time to time, I can only imagine how some of you felt.
But what he may have lacked in tact, he more than made up for with sincerity and goodwill. My dad found in Jesus Christ the way to God, and he wanted everyone he met to experience that too. His hope rested in the words we heard from John’s gospel, that Jesus was going to prepare a place for us. And if he went to prepare a place, he would come back again and take us to himself so that where he is, there we might be also. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, as he told Thomas when he asked about the way to the Father.
I have come to learn that there are some who experience that desire to follow Christ in the way my Dad did, with a whole-hearted immediate change that sparked a fire in him all his days. And I know that there are some who come to the way of Jesus much more tentatively, with questions and doubts, sometimes not even sure that they are walking the way of Jesus. These too eventually find their way to the Father as they look for the way of Christ in the shadows of their life. I personally am glad for all the ways that people experience life-change through Christ, and I know that for many of you my dad truly was the presence of Jesus in your life. Wherever you are on that journey, I hope that my dad’s deep love for Christ will help you in both big and small ways to see God’s presence in your own life.
Was he perfect? Lord, no. Yes, I’m giving his eulogy, but I’m also being honest. And he would from time to time admit the ways he had let us down, and offer his apologies and seek to make things right. He was like any of the other saints out there who try to make their way in this world: complex people with both their good and bad traits desiring to live as faithful followers of the Almighty.
I don’t pretend to know everything about my dad, or to fully comprehend all the decisions he made in his life. It was Ian Morgan Cron in his recent memoir about his father who said it best: “Our parents are mysteries to us. No matter how close we think we are to them, we cannot know the content of their hearts. We don’t know the disappointments, or the scars and regrets that wake them in the night, or the moments for which they wish they could get a do-over. I’m not persuaded we should know them better than that. In our therapeutic age, it’s commonly said that we’re only as sick as our secrets. But there are secrets that we should keep only between God and ourselves. I don’t trust people who tell you everything. They’re usually hiding something.”
In the end, as he journeyed these last months, surely there were secrets between God and him from throughout the course of his life. But as he found his way home, and as my sisters and brothers rallied around him, he found peace. We snatched moments of time with him for a conversation and a kiss, and he told each of us as his children that he was proud of us. That he loved us. That he couldn’t believe all we had done for him throughout his life. And I have to say my thanks to them all, to the ones nearby who gave so much these past months, Gina and Chris, especially, and Berniece as well, and to us who were away and came as we could to support and pray, Lisa and Russ and Rhonda and Laura, thank you. To the next generation, the young and not so young among the grandkids and great-grandkids: He loved you dearly, and he only wants the best for you in your life. I know he would want me to share with you the words he shared with me once when I was just a kid: Whatever you do in your life, be it a ditch digger or a doctor, do it with care and determination and hard work, and know that he will love you no matter what.
I am no longer that five year old wanting to get my own cereal bowl, but I understand it much better now. On that day when I clambered up onto the counter all by myself, he wanted time to stand still, maybe even go back some to cherish the experiences all the more. Now it is I who wants the clock to pause for the opportunity to have another conversation, to steal another hug. To have him for just a bit more time.
It’s an impossible task, of course, what I ask of people when they set out to write eulogies for their parents. What can you say about your father in just a few pages? How do you sum up a life in that short a space of time? I don’t really know. I can only say the words that I’m sure he heard when he met his Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.” And may you both rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.