I gave my father’s eulogy this week.
He had been in and out the hospital for 21 weeks since he broke his back at a picnic for my mother who had just gone on hospice for lung cancer. The first hospital missed the break, the rehab ignored the spinal cord involvement, then surgery and acute rehab where he worked hours everyday to deal with paraplegia and try and get home to his wife. He had a respiratory event in the beginning of September, probably restrictive restrictive cardiomyopathy misdiagnosed as aspiration, for which he was pounded with antibiotics. He ended up with Clostridium difficile, and spent the last six weeks fighting the infection. He had a good few nights before he died, and family was with him when he went, just after his wife told him how much she loved their life together.
I was with him every step of the way, from emergency room to joint physical therapy, learning how to help keep his bowels clear, working to get the house ready for return, which ended up with massive conflict with my sister and sister-in-law’s family, just tonnes of energy from me to take care of him. I was enmeshed at a level that I was hard to manage, especially with having to take care of my mother every night.
I wanted to do the same thing with his death as I had with his life: honor him and his story.
That wasn’t what my sister-in-law’s family wanted, though. Raised Italian and Roman Catholic, funerals are a time to “let others take care of you.” They declined even to participate by doing a reading at the service. They declined to contribute to the memorial website.
My mother also didn’t want to offer anything. She is just pissed he went before she did, leaving her alone for the first time in her 88 years. Yes, she said that to me, as I worked incredibly hard to take care of her. “Just tell them he was a good man who was faithful and took care of his family,” she told me. “Just don’t make waves, don’t cause trouble. Your father wouldn’t.”
No stories for her. We had a phone call from a cousin, and she cut me off when I wanted to tell of how my father connected to his first and last medical doctor by stories about his cousin’s family and their Persian connection.
I had a pile of notes for a eulogy, many of which I wrote in the hospital room in the last six weeks. But I had no through line, no punch, no story to carry the listener. And I had no one to work it through with. I haven’t really written for years, and my mother’s depression was consuming almost all my energy, a depression that I first started managing when I was about 10, so nothing new with her spouse’s death.
Events at the end had been serendipitous. My mother saw a posting for a grief workshop hosted by pastors from her old church on the Saturday before my father died. My sister went on Monday, finding a church in a pastoral setting that my brother saw as being very like my father’s native Alberta. The pastors called the day after my father died, without knowing of the passing and offered their church for a service. It was right.
I tried to shape the service, but the pastor invited my sister-in-law’s husband and queered the meeting.
So it just went on, without the minister even understanding I would speak. In the end, I was the only person to speak. Someone had to do the work of taking care of my father.
I was lost, with a few themes, but no development. The path he walked, all those miles. The hard work he always gave, landscaping to caring. The difference in his immigrant beginnings, with a Ukrainian speaking home and no power, and now. How he lived in his own world and invited us in. The way his family was always innovative. His being a character, and his having character. His spirit of inclusive and awesome love.
The audience, mostly the large extended family of my sister-in-law, gave my nothing. I couldn’t get them to respond. Her husband sat in front, eyes tightly shut and with a blank expression. Asshole. Thank God for the next door neighbours who came and engaged. Amen.
I went to my last theme, the one that had come to me as I sat in the cold parking lot for a couple of hours before the service, just a little time to be contemplative.
We each got a part of my father, I said. My sister got his creativity. My brother — my sister-in-law’s husband – got his tradition as a family man.
And me? What did I get?
I told a story about my fifth grade teacher, with whom I had a difficult relationship. Once in class, she misstated a scientific theory, and I corrected her. She wanted to put me in my place, so she had the class vote on who was right. They all voted with her, of course.
That would have worked with virtually any other kid, peer pressure being the big weapon.
But she forgot one thing. One simple thing.
I was my father’s kid. I didn’t back down when I knew I was right.
She looked it up, and of course, I was right.
I got his striving and fighting nature, his willingness to stand up to power. It was a trait many engineers and professors saw first hand.
This part of my father wasn’t valued by my mother or by my sister-in-law’s husband, but in the course of his life, it really defined him. It was one reason why we kept moving on, to my mother’s chagrin, even if she believes he went on first to find a house for her.
Near the end, my father didn’t always have good language. he would repeatedly ask where I was, for example. But his final message was clear.
“You speak for me. You speak for Ma. Why don’t you speak for you?” he would repeat over and over.
He gave me the nature and the tools to fight for myself, even if that is an “obstreperous” side that my mother didn’t want to encourage.
He knew I had to speak for me. Knew it even on his worst days.
And there is one thing that is still true, will always be true.
I am my father’s kid.