On the night before my wedding I spent a good deal of time with my best man, Shawn, and my father. Shawn eventually left the room we were in and it was just my father and I in a hotel, not far from where the two branches of the Susquehanna River meet. As I’m sure most of you know, my father was a very opinionated man, filled with many stories that he was always eager to share, and never left anything unsaid when it came to speaking his mind. I sat and waited, expecting a speech, some sort of preserved wisdom he would have for me. Maybe it would be the secret to a long marriage — after all he was married to my mother nearly 40 years. I thought maybe there was something he had yet to share with me about life, or about being a father, or a man. But oddly enough, it never came. We just made small talk for a few hours and I waited and waited. I felt the time had come and gone for some sort of talk, and I left completely disappointed, almost angry, that such a verbal man would have absolutely nothing to say to me on the evening for my wedding. How could this possibly be?
Since that night I have come to understand that whatever he had to say to me had already been said and impressed upon me, spaced out over three decades, one day, one night, and one conversation at a time. Everything he needed to do to make me the man I was, or the husband and father I would become, had already been worked out over the course of my life and it would have been a little silly if he waited thirty two years to say something that would suddenly turn a light bulb on or push me over some threshold. As far as he was concerned, and I am concerned, the duties of a father towards a son had been fulfilled some time ago. And for better or worse, I am who I am. I’m not really quite sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I stopped being a needful child requiring a dad, and we became more or less equals as men, and I considered him, my father, to be my best friend. I know I’m lucky to have had what I had as a child, but I’m just as lucky for what we have shared in my adulthood. And as I go through this in my mind, when the pain comes, it is with the realization of what lies ahead of me. With one beautiful little girl already, and another on the way, my heart aches to know he will not be there when it comes time to show them the proper way to feed ducks stale bread at a nearby pond, as he showed me how to do when I was a little boy.
I am, as they say, “pushing 40,” and I’m at the point in my life where I don’t need someone to show me how to shave, or how to tie a tie, or how to sharpen a knife, or explain what it means to make the correct choice for a family when opportunities are few, obligations many, and headwinds stiff. But I certainly would like to be able to call him after Lucy’s first day of school, or share a conversation about the Phillies latest trade over a very slowly cooked steak, or hell, even to hear one more time a story I’ve heard many times already from his youth about the wilds of Kensington in the 50s. And when that realization settles that I no longer have these options or opportunities, as it has many times over the past few days, that’s when the pain of his loss comes most sharply and most deeply.
Along the way, my father taught me, and probably others in this room, the importance of living life in the full possession of humor, even when the humor may not be entirely appropriate. I stopped by a good friend’s home over the weekend, to talk about what had recently happened, and to share some lunch in order to burn some hours before it was time to make final peace. And my friend asked me, quite naturally, “how is it going?” I couldn’t help but ask myself, how would my father reply? And with the tone of his voice ringing in my head, part Jackie Gleason and part Archie Bunker, I told him deadpan, “It could be better. But then again, it could be worse — I could be the one getting embalmed today.”
Over time I learned that the most important stories my father told were ones that didn’t come with any punch lines and were told only once. One such story was surrounding the death of his Uncle Jim Robinson. As many of you know, my father’s father died when he was three. He grew up with his mother’s brother, my Great-Uncle Jim, as head of the household and primary income earner, Great Uncle Jim’s wife, and younger cousin in Kensington. Growing up in a working class Irish home without a father and a mother with a sixth grade education is not exactly the best footing to start out on when pursuing the American Dream. I can still remember my father telling me that story, only once, of when his Uncle died. He and his brother and cousin were too young to own cars, my father only being 16 and his cousin 15 and brother 13. They got word of my Great Uncle Jim’s serious medical condition while he was hospitalized, and they walked from the river ward of Kensington to a hospital in North East Philly. It apparently took a better part of the day to get there. I don’t think my father or his cousin or brother entirely understood the seriousness of the situation until they got there.
Once they go to his Uncle Jim’s side they quickly understood his time on earth was limited, and he did pass away later that night. It was at that moment, at the age of 16, that my father realized he was the male head of the household and his disabled mother and brother were his charge. It was at that moment, finding his uncle unconscious in a hospital bed, that he knew what his future would be, and what his duties to family were, and where his life was headed. There would be no semesters in a college tucked away in the mountains of central PA for him to find himself. There’d be little margin of error when it came to affording groceries or yearly real estate taxes. It was just do or not do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I’m not here to canonize the man whose life we celebrate today. None of us are without fault, short-comings, and we all have many reasons to stay out of glass houses. And, certainly, none of us are truly the person we are at our worst moment. Our true character manifests when choices are limited, the pursuit of self is not an option, and others are truly counting on us. The nature of our character shows itself when decisions mean the most, consequences are most dire, and the right thing is most urgently needed. I have no doubt that there is not a single person in this room right now who knew my father, and if given a choice, would not pick him as the first person to accompany them in a fox hole. When it came to doing the right thing when the odds were most precariously stacked, it was my father that you would want to find yourself relying on.
In his final years, he wasn’t quite the ox I knew as a child. His back wasn’t so strong and his hands were no longer the fists that clenched sheet metal shears in order to glide their blades through sheets of steel. Years of carrying fifty pounds of tools up and down ladders in order to put his children through private school and college left him a bit frail, as did the medical condition that finally took him. But it didn’t stop him from taking in part of one the proudest moments of his life; walking my sister down the matrimonial aisle. When he had to do what he had to do — he did.
And with that spirit, of doing what is necessary, with little fuss, fanfare, self-reflection, doubt, regret, or remorse, I’m going to walk out this door today, and I’m going to watch my father be put in the ground. And then I’m going to get up tomorrow, the next day, and the next day. And I’m going to do what he would expect of me. I’m going to do what needs to be done. And like Bill Brader, my father’s friend of more than 56 years, posted on Facebook in response to my father’s passing, the world will be a little smaller, and a little less fun along the way. But we will always have the stories, the photos, the laughs, and most importantly– the time we spent on this earth with him, in whatever way we each individually may have spent it with him.
If you find yourself not quite knowing what to say or do today, or any day for that matter, please …. for my father, find a reason to laugh. Why? Because you know, he would know, and I know — its the right thing to do.