Happy Fathers Day to all fathers! I will refrain from railing against the corporate nature of this Hallmark holiday because I embrace any chance to think about my dad.
That’s a bit of a dodge as I think about him every day. His mass card, with an amazing picture of him – light shining behind him as he stands in the vestments he wore as a permanent deacon – is all over my office at work on three separate walls. His image is always in my mind. Often, his words come back to me – a comment he would have made, a phrase he used repeatedly – and I smile.
A friend of mine at work told me a few months ago that I am beginning to look like him.
That’s a nice compliment.
I’d like to be known for acting like him, too.
Below is the eulogy I was blessed to share at Dad’s funeral.
I love you, Dad. And I miss you.
I would ask all of YOUSE a very special favor for me. Pray that God’s spirit will touch me and that each one of us will be open to God’s words.
Wow. I must love Dad a lot because North Denver lingo like “youse” feels a little awkward to me. I won’t go so far as to say it poisons my tongue as my dad suggested any and all manner of green vegetable would do to his, but I will say this: it would be odd to begin this eulogy in this space – this church that it is not too much to say that my father and mother helped build from the ground up – it would be strange to start any tribute to Dad without asking for all of “youse” to pray.
I look around this church, as I did last night at the Vigil, and I think most of you must comprise that group of people my dad referred to time-and-again as his “guys.” It seemed that, if anything went wrong or if anything was needed, Dad would say “I know a guy.” My mother would be upset if I didn’t note that some of his guys were, of course, women, but, man or woman, it didn’t really matter. Dad had a guy for everything. He had guys who worked on all our cars and guys he would ask to begin pray chains for people. He had guys who could make thousand dollar donations to causes they’d never heard of before – they’d do it because Dad asked them to – and guys who fixed washing machines and air conditioners. He had guys with whom he completed missionary work and guys who, well, you get the story. Dad always KNEW a guy… and it occurs to me more poignantly today than ever before that Dad’s guys knew him, too. You knew him. And you loved him. It was easy, then, to do things for him. Dad, I guess, was one of YOUR guys.
But he was a husband. He was a brother. He was my sisters’ and my dad. My wife and my brothers-in-law knew him from his home, not from his church, or the diaconate, or mission work. His grandkids didn’t really know him as a deacon, they knew “Grandpa” – Grandpa who said really weird things like “do you want a poke in the eye with a sharp stick” or asked them to look for “pookas” in the backyard he made so very beautiful over the years or told them that, instead of Santa Claus coming on Christmas Eve with gifts, Mackles would come to leave them all lumps of coal or asked them if they had “flunked early to avoid the rush” or repeatedly called out one of their names and, when they finally answered him, said “just checking.”
Dad was checking on them all the time. I don’t think that stops now.
Our kids all love their grandpa. But they simply cannot understand right now how much he loved them. His youngest grandson will be told it was Dad who just a few short weeks ago went to get him his first bike. Maybe we’ll even remind him of the time he locked his poor Grandpa in the shed. And laughed. His brother will remember Grandpa in his Rockies jacket sitting on the stands at his t-ball games. Every time my goddaughter gets dressed up for a party, she’ll probably hear Grandpa asking “what costume do you have on today?” My daughter may not have loved it when Dad would pick up a flashlight, turn it on, hold it to her ear and pretend the light showed right through from one side of her head to the other with no brain to block it, but I bet she’ll miss him doing it. My oldest niece should know that every goal she scored on the soccer pitch really pleased her grandpa – he loved how tough she was, he was especially proud of her the day she accidentally broke another little girl’s arm. That was the residual North Denver tough in him I think. When my son got an X-Box, Dad drove him crazy saying to him: “X-Box? Who cares? I have a Z-Box” and you would have loved their arguments over the Wii video game system. Dad insisted on calling the Wii a “They.” My stepson first met Dad about five years ago on Halloween when Dad was completely dressed up as Captain Jack Sparrow… that, by-the-way, was quite a sight, Dad really sold out for it. When my stepson saw Dad again a few weeks later and noted that Dad still had a protruding stomach, he was surprised. He thought that was part of the costume. Who could blame him?
It is hard for us all to believe that we were on our Annual Family Mountain Trip up in Breckenridge two and a half weeks ago, sitting with Dad, teasing him, sharing meals, sharing our stories, panicking as the power went out because of his oxygen, watching movies he loved like The Sandlot and The Natural. It was so important to him to go on that trip. So important to spend time with his grandkids. So important that they knew how much he loved them. Guys, you all know that Grandpa would do anything for you, right? You know that he did so much for you.
Just as he has done for me and my sisters throughout our lives.
We’ve all owned houses as adults, the three of us. And, unlike Mom and Dad who spent all 46 years of their married lives in one home, we’ve all moved. So, including almost 50 years in one house (a house that expanded every time Mom ever mentioned moving from it – Dad would simply put in another room or renovate the kitchen – he would bribe her into staying put!) and there have been many, many opportunities for Dad to assist in some household improvement project both at his house and at our various homes. I can’t really tell you if Dad loved doing household projects – I never heard him actually say he did, but I can tell you he did them all the time while his hands and legs would let him. In fact, even after he was diagnosed with cancer, he was outside my younger sister’s house trying to help them pull a stump out of their yard so they could plant flowers. In terms of, you know, basic household upkeep like wiring and plumbing, Dad was self taught. Completely. We were just joking with mom a few nights ago that she better hope that, if she ever decides to sell her home that inspectors don’t look under the hood too closely. Most of the projects Dad undertook worked, though some of them might not be, shall we say, up to code.
My older sister was the first to buy a house so she and her husband got to experience Dad and his projects first hand. After a while, my brother-in-law got the hang of working with him. First step, talk about the project. Then take a break. Gather the tools. Then take a break. Drive a nail. Then take a break. You get the picture. Though Dad’s hands showed the wear and tear of working on many projects, he had a fear of the site of blood, particularly his own. As he and my brother-in-law were doing some wiring in my sister’s house, scuffling around crawl spaces and stringing the wires together, Dad cut his finger. It was a minor wound at best, one that my youngest nephews would lick and move on, but Dad got woozy… had to sit up and, of course, take a break. The break lasted the rest of the day. The longest SPRING Break I ever spent was when Dad convinced me that I should remodel a bathroom in my first home. It was a weekend project, he said. We started tearing that thing out on the Friday I got out of school for the break. We finished the Sunday night before classes started up again. Needless to say, we took a lot of breaks.
What never took a break, though, was how much Dad loved doing things with us and doing things for us. He wanted us to be happy. Just last Saturday night, Dad asked me what was wrong with the side-view mirror of my car which I had cracked backing into something. I told him I was going to take the car in to one of his guys to get it fixed. He said he’d call around to junk yards to save the money on the part. He watched out for us. He taught us what it means to be a parent. He taught us what it means to love.
He also taught us something that I heard talked about last night and I sincerely hope no one ever forgets about him: he taught us what it means to have fun. Dad teased us, mercilessly. For years – for some reason known only to God and him – Dad threatened to get my older sister a bale of hay for her birthday. I mean it, year-after-year Dad would say this was the year the bale was coming. Years passed. No bale. But you know how this turns out… my sister turned 21 and, sure enough, there was a happy birthday bale of hay. God only knows where he got it… probably from one of his guys.
Dad called my younger sister “Broccoli Nose” for years. Again, I have no living idea why. It was his nickname for her and he’d call her that all the time. “It’s Broccoli Nose’s turn to the dishes.” “Time for school, Broccoli Nose.” “Broccoli Nose looks upset” and who wouldn’t be if their nickname was “Broccoli Nose? He’d call her that in front of her friends, too. Eventually, as we all tended to do with Dad, she gave in and, in the basement of my parents’ house, there’s a great picture of my younger sister with a piece of broccoli taped to her nose.
Growing up, I think my sisters and I thought our lives were normal. I think we thought our dad was normal. I mean, every Dad told their kids’ friends that they could fly around the neighborhood at night or that a troll was living under their stairs, right? Everyone’s Dad stopped more than once a week on his way back from work to bring home a Slurpee for them on a hot summer day. Every Dad would tear up the yard they loved to build a dog run for a horrible animal named Abercrombie that really looked stitched together from a collection of carpet scraps, right? Every dad would go to Arby’s – a restaurant I never once remember eating at as a child – to collect pint glasses emblazoned with superheroes for their son. I’ll never forget opening that paper bag and seeing those glasses shining out. The way I remember it, my sisters eventually broke them all but what is ebay for after all? I have them all back! Everyone’s Dad was so unconcerned about time that he made being late to pick us up at school an art. He was just so happy about it, like he was proud of being late, that you couldn’t really get mad at him. And Dad didn’t make running out of gas an art, he had it down to a science. He ran out of gas on the way home from church, on the way to school, on the way to the cemetery at least once. He wasn’t concerned. He knew that they wouldn’t start without him. Everyone’s dad got to baptize his youngest child. Everyone’s dad got to officiate their children’s weddings. (Oh, and on a side note here, at my older sister’s wedding, Dad forgot his glasses and the text in the lectionary for the gospel was simply too small for him to read. So he did what you’d all expect he would. He made up the gospel that day. Truly it was the Gospel According to My Father.) Every dad did these things, right?
Dads did them, but, perhaps, brothers didn’t. We can only ask my aunt what her brother was like growing up, and she may or may not answer… what we know for sure is that she’s the only person who knew him for her entire life. She’s really the only person who’s walked the whole journey with him. She’s the one who can tell us about the makeshift tabernacle created from the stable from the nativity set Dad erected in his attic bedroom in one of the homes she lived in with Dad, my Grandmother and Grandfather, my uncle in North Denver. Only she can tell us how mad she and my uncle made Dad when they would break into that tabernacle and steal the host – some pieces of candy standing in for the Body of Christ. She could tell us just how upset grandma was when Dad decided not to join the priesthood as a young man – Dad maintains he didn’t become a priest because he didn’t want his brother to inherit his tricked out car on taking the vow of poverty – but who knows for sure. What my aunt could tell you is that Grandma was angry enough about that particular decision to set only four places at the table for dinner that night, one for Grandpa, my uncle, Grandma and my aunt. None for Dad. She could tell you how mad Grandma was, again, when Dad decided to join the diaconate. She could tell you how happy she thinks her dad, my grandfather is, about my dad’s arrival in heaven. “Thank God you’re here,” she told me Grandpa must be saying. “Now you can talk to your mother and give me a break!” These are the many things my aunt could say but, if you ask her, what she’s most likely to say is the simplest truth: “he was a good brother and I love him.”
My aunt may have been one of the first people to know what it was really like to love Dad, but surely our mom was in the top five on that list. Maybe the top three.
Mom loves Dad and she’s always known him better than anyone sometimes, I think, better than he knew himself. Let’s be clear: mom met him when she was 12, got engaged to him when she was 17, married him when she was 18. It’s 46 years later. Check out my mom’s ring finger. Their story is a love story told in the real world.
Many people in this church can think of their wonderful memories of the Deacon which is interesting to me on at least two counts: first, Dad never introduced himself as the Deacon. And second, and it has to be said here, today, if it’s ever going to be said, Dad and Mom saw his work as shared ministry between them. She was as much a part of his apostolic life as a deacon as was possible when he was ordained. She’s not going to like me saying this, but it’s true: without Mom, there is no Deacon to speak of today. By-the-way, Dad knew that. He knew that their time in the Oilers, the mini-parish they’ve been a part of for the better part of the last 40 years, was shared time – the time those people came together to share the Word in their twenties and watched their families grow up together – was time they had together and it made them who they were as a couple and who he was as a Deacon. My sisters and I can all remember Mom and Dad writing Dad’s homilies together, especially in his early years in the diaconate. They were living in the Vatican II church and they were active and they were on fire and they were alive in the spirit. Together. When Dad had to have an advocate to write to Rome for special permission to be ordained a deacon because he was about two months shy of the age cut off established for the diaconate, she may not have known exactly what she was getting in to, but Mom was right there.
When they were stumping for water rights or working for presidential candidates, they did it together. When Dad was asked to run for Congress at the tender age of 30, he and Mom consulted before he chose not to do it – it remains truly the only thing I can think of that he looked back upon with a little regret – that he didn’t run.
When Dad left the Denver Post and the security of the job for an Associate Pastor position at our parish, the first held by a deacon in the Archdiocese, Mom helped him make the decision. He didn’t do it alone.
It is said Dad printed all the weekly bulletins for the church until the late 1980s. It should be noted that Mom knew how to run that press and printed her share, too. She also knew, somehow, how to calm the savage beast Dad would become when running that thing. Late at night, we’d hear the gears turning, the paper whipping across the plates smoothly when, suddenly and, in fact, predictably, the steady drone would be broken with a loud shout to her and Mom would come down the stairs to help him put the pieces back together.
Putting the pieces back together: it’s what they did for each other. It’s not at all strange to me that they began enjoying doing puzzles in recent years.
Mom and Dad did things together, all throughout their lives and, Mom, he loved you so much. Before cell phones, Dad would leave the Denver Post, his hands covered in ink that just wouldn’t come off and would stop at a pay phone to ask Mom what he could bring home for her, to ask her what she needed. Just last Saturday, after we’d all gone out to dinner to celebrate their 46 anniversary, Dad called me into their bedroom. As I helped him slip off his shoes, Dad said to me: “Be sure someone gets me a card for Mommy.” As it turns out, what he needed was her.
Hard to believe that my mother’s mother threw a fit when she heard that Mom wanted to marry Dad. As it turns out, Mom gave up a college scholarship to marry my father. Even my grandma, who had a bit of a stubborn streak in her, must look back at that decision and say, in retrospect, she was wrong. She would have denied the world a great love story.
Over the last few months and, certainly, in the last few days, we’ve talked a lot about Dad being at peace with his illness. We’ve all heard stories about people facing catastrophic illnesses and how they come to peace with those diagnoses. But to watch Dad face this with grace, immediately conscious of the fact that he and Mom had had a full life together, that they had done all they set out to do, they’d seen the world by plane and cruise ship, that they had 3 children who they loved and who loved them, that they had in laws and grandkids who they doted on and who doted on them, to watch him come to peace in the span of what seemed to me like seconds and know – really know – that God had a place at the table, a room in the house because it had been so promised, that was and will always remain humbling and amazing and all together who he was. He was going to miss his family when he went, yes, he was going to miss all of us, and he knew we were going to miss him, too, but he simply wasn’t afraid to find new life. He knew it was waiting for him.
From the moment I heard that he’d decided not to undergo treatment for his cancer, I knew he would go out on his own terms. I can’t tell you why he chose last Wednesday. Was it because he’d made it through the Mountain Trip? Or because he’d celebrated his anniversary? Maybe it was because he’d just on Tuesday wrapped up a significant piece of work for his mission in Mexico. I think I’ll believe that it was because August 10 is the Feast Day of St. Lawrence. St. Stephen is the patron Saint of Deacons. Dad went home on Deacons’ Day.
And we love him. And we miss him. We’ll never stop doing either of those things will we? We’ll always miss him. We’ll never stop loving him.
But I take heart in this, it’s a prayer Dad said for all of us some 36 years ago. It’s a piece of what I think is the first homily he ever gave that I found in a box marked “Ordination” in Mom’s laundry room. It’s his message, Mom, one of the many he’ll send to us if we’re listening:
“I ask and thank God that He will be with my wife and myself in all that we do with our lives and be with me in all the work that I do in this parish. I ask all of you to pray to God for me and my family and that He shares the joy and love I have today with each and every one of you.”
Or should I say with each and every one of youse?