Suffice it to say, being the wordsmith in a family has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it vests you with the privilege of being the “go-to-guy” when it’s important to find just the right words to convey congratulations, recognition, inspiration, or well wishes at festive family functions (e.g., weddings, graduations, birthdays, celebratory dinners, retirement parties, awards banquets, etc.). But it also carries with it a sense of responsibility/obligation to find equally “right” words of condolence, comfort, hope or understanding on more somber occasions (e.g., the death of a family member or loved one, the break-up of a marriage or a friendship, etc.).
Such was the case the day after my father died 16 years ago, when the discussion inevitably turned to deciding who would deliver his eulogy. My grief would just have to wait a few days. There was a task to be completed. Somehow, given all of the circumstances, that seemed oddly, though no less disturbingly, appropriate. Two days later, at my dad’s Memorial Mass, I delivered (or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that I tried to deliver) the following remarks to a gathering that was disappointingly small given the number of people whose lives my dad undoubtedly had touched during his personal and professional life:
REMARKS FOR DAD’S MEMORIAL MASS (8/23/97)
This past Tuesday evening, I was sifting through some papers in my dad’s office, hoping to gain a better understanding of this very private and complicated man who was my father. After several hours, I came across an old coffee-stained letter in one of 3 manila envelopes bearing the word “MEMORABILIA” in my dad’s unmistakable handwriting. The letter caused me to reflect on my relationship with my dad and, this morning, I’d like to share some of those reflections with you.
As children, there are a lot of things we take for granted:
the unconditional love of our parents
unlimited free transportation
a good example
box seats at Fenway Park on a summer Saturday afternoon
airline “pass” privileges
the power of a loving and merciful God
the luxury of a “stay at home mom”
40 yard line seats at the Orange Bowl
words of encouragement
We don’t do it with any malicious intent. We just lack understanding. We lack wisdom. I think that’s particularly true when it comes to understanding fathers.
All of us understand, from a very young age, the “biology” of fathering a child, but, as children, we have almost no understanding of what it takes to be a “dad.”
We don’t understand the pressures, disappointments and frustrations that frequently dominate our dad’s work day – pressures that are magnified when, like my dad, you are the sole financial provider for your family.
We don’t understand the strength of character that is required to put those pressures, disappointments and frustrations aside when you walk through the door at the end of the work day, so that you can don the robe of dad and loving husband.
We go to church on Sundays, observe religious holidays and traditions, and see our dad on his knees at the beginning and end of every day, but we don’t understand the awesome responsibility that accompanies being the spiritual head of a household.
We benefit from, but don’t understand, the personal and professional sacrifices that go along with having our dad standing in the third base coach’s box at Suniland Park, being on the 18th green at Crooked Creek, or sitting in the stands at a high school swim meet at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.
We don’t understand (and perhaps misinterpret) the personal pain that sometimes inevitably accompanies the degree of self-sacrifice, commitment, discipline and selflessness that it takes to be a dad.
We don’t understand these things, in part, because dads work very hard to insulate their children from the “real world,” in the hope that they can extend the innocence of childhood as long as possible.
Inevitably, however, childhood ends and we pass through a period where we begin to understand, but in our struggle to define our own identity, choose to ignore, much of what our parents say, feel and do for us. It’s particularly true with sons and fathers.
The dad of our childhood is still in the “third base coach’s box,” if you will, warning us that “a curve ball” is on the way. But, too frequently, we disregard the warning, we “know better,” we dig in and, often, we swing and miss.
In the process, we fall out of touch. We don’t write or call as often as we should. We experience fear, joy, successes and failures, without sharing them with our parents. In the midst of our life journeys, we lose sight of how important our parents have been to us and how important we are to them.
Again, it’s not something we do intentionally or with malice. We’re just “too busy.” We’re learning. . .
And then one day we have children of our own and everything changes. It changes for us, as we experience firsthand what it means to be a dad, and, invariably, it changes our relationship with and appreciation for our own dad.
I know it did with my brother and I.
In closing, I want to share with you that letter I mentioned at the outset of my remarks. It’s dated August 21, 1988, nearly 9 years ago to the day. . .
Dear Dad –
This is an attempt at a thank you note. As you know, these past nine years of married life have brought a great deal of challenges and changes in my life. They say that when people reach their thirties they begin to reassess their lives and begin the ‘settling down’ process. It’s the time when the greatest majority of career changes and divorces take place. But, for my part, I couldn’t be more optimistic. You see, I have a gift which, it has become apparent to me, is the envy of many — possibly the best role model for a man and a father any son could ever ask for. Anyone who knows me, also knows just how much my father means to me — everyone, that is, except the one who matters most -my father. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not reminded of you in some way. Usually it’s because I become aware of my mannerisms or body language or attitude.
When it’s my turn to lecture, I think of you and how you encouraged me those many years ago at St. Louis to give it a try. How my knees trembled as I stood in front of all those people! But you planted the seed of public speaking that would grow (in genetically fertile soil) to be a source of pride for me and the very foundation of any self confidence I may project. Word usage, eye contact and all of your communication skills – the essence of business and personal relationship successes – were well cultivated by the environments you encouraged me to participate in. You gave me a thirst for knowledge and discovery that has allowed me to continue to grow at a time when those around me seem satisfied with their ‘lot’ in life and are stagnating – dying – at a young age. It’s so much more exciting to be a part of the ‘building’ process.
I think about you a lot, Dad. Always with pride. I wonder how you’re really doing, what’s really going on with you ‘behind the scenes.’ What’s important to you these days? How are you feeling? I miss you.
Well, as I said, we’ve had our share of life’s challenges. Although I’m sure they’re far from over, you’ve equipped me well with the necessary tools to face the future with confidence. Foremost among those tools is an abiding faith in God. We never talked about God much, I guess I acquired your faith by osmosis. But it was always evident and important to you. It has become indispensable to me and us, and we’re striving to make God more a part of our children’s lives.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say thank you – directly to you. I thank God for you and your example often. Thank you for everything you’ve given me so unselfishly over the past 31 years. I know at times I probably didn’t make it too easy. I’ll try to write more often, but for now, it’s important that you know just how much I love and appreciate you for who you are. That every time I receive a compliment, request for advice, or am asked to join or chair a committee of people, many years my seniors I think of you and how much of a head start on life I have because of who you are. My greatest compliment is still – and will always be – when someone tells me how much I’m like my father! I sure hope there’s some truth to that! Thank you Dad, I love you.
And I think when you’re a dad (in fact, I know if you’re my dad!) a letter like that makes it all worthwhile. Thanks Russ, I couldn’t have said it better myself. And thank you dad for everything.