Friday, April 2, 2010

Eulogy for my Father

I admit that I have really been dragging my feet on everything pertaining to my Dad, its very difficult to let go and doing things like posting my eulogy bring the reality of his departure too close. But I wanted to honor him here by posting the words that were spoken in his honor. So 3 months later here is what I said at his service.

Welcome, welcome, welcome . . . .

Earlier in the reading from Isaiah, there was mention of feasts and wine, images that are literal and metaphorical for my father. His life was a feast: A feast not just of Bouillabaisse, fillet Minion and good wine but also of curiosity, of learning, of listening, of wonder, of tireless energy, of relationships, of creativity and love. I have sat at the table of my father's feast, drank deeply of the wine of his imagination and the food of his love. It’s in that spirit that I celebrate him.

I begin by celebrating my father's listening. He understood that listening is a layered act, that we listen to words, but its more important to hear the emotional meaning behind the words, and that in listening we seek the reason such emotions find the expressions they do. What my father sought was a connection to that which lay behind words. He sought the inner emotional life of the speaker, even if the act of speaking is often at attempt to hide that inner life.

It wasn't until Michele and I got married that I could better understand the importance of this kind of listening. Our relationship has some stormy moments. Its in those moments, when we are both miserable during and after a fight, that if I can listen to her words and hear the frustration, the hurt and the fear that lay behind them. That is the moment the healing process can begin.

I also want to celebrate my father's tears. Like so many men, my father didn't cry often but the few times I saw him cry told me a lot about him as a man.

The first memory I have of his crying was on a Friday night drive from Philadelphia to the vineyard. Chris and I were in the car when he rolled through a rural stop sign without coming to a complete stop; and was nabbed by a police officer waiting for just such an offense. As the officer stood buy the side of the car I could see my dad starting fight back tears. For an 11 year old this was a surprising moment. I couldn't put it in words at the time, but what Chris and I witnessed was his emotional vulnerability. Despite how imposing any father is in the eyes of his young children here was a moment that showed us he didn't like getting in trouble either, and that his response wasn't all that different from our own. And that maybe we perceived him to be more imposing than he actually was.

Another time I witnessed my father’s tears was at the reception we had at the vineyard for my grandmother after she passed away. My dad stood on the road, enthusiastically greeting his friend Rev. Bob Miller who had just arrived, when another car came rolling down the dirt road. The car came to a stop and we could see that it was my sister Elizabeth, who we thought wouldn't be able to attend. As soon as my father saw her, he burst into uncontrolled tears of gratitude and love.

While being very good with other people's emotions he was not nearly so good with his own. He has many friends, and people that I know he loved deeply, but he had difficulty expressing that love, sometimes the only sense one could get of his profound attachment to others, was to be there when he was taken by surprise and his emotions overflowed his ability to control them.

One last crying example. On the occasion of his 80th birthday I gave my father a volume of poems by Robert Frost signed by the author. We sat at the table appreciating Frost's words, when my father asked me to read, the poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. " Which I gladly did, when I got to the final lines of the poem, I looked up to see him sobbing as I spoke the words ". . .and many miles to go before I sleep." In this case he cried over the beauty of the poem, and the way it points directly to our mortality. I also wonder if his own mortality felt a little too close at that moment, that maybe he mourned the fact that the poem of our lives, of his children and grand children would go on, yet at some point he would not be here to live it with us. There would be verses to which he would not know the end.

Now at the beginning of this holiday season, Michele, the kids and I arrived at the vineyard a few days before Christmas. Our four year old, Elias had not see his grand father for some time and so was a bit uneasy with the intimacy of my encouragement to "give grand-pa a kiss" and all that. Our second evening here dad responded to Elias' turning away from him by saying slyly "you don't kiss old men."

But the next morning while Michele and I were still in bed Dad took Elias to his office and showed him a painting of the two of them sitting together on the beach in Maine. It’s a wonderful painting because they both have the same joyous smile. Pointing to the painting Dad said "Look Elias, that's us together, in Maine." "Yea, it is!" Elias responded. "Do you think we were having fun together?" "Yeea." Was the reply. Then Dad said "Elias, I love you very much."

"You DOOO?" Elias said, showing his surprise.

"Yes, I do" Dad Said. Elias paused then gave a n affirming "I love you too grand-pa." That moment cemented their relationship and Elias gave Dad many hugs and kisses in the following days. What I love about this exchange, though is that my dad was showing Elias how they could be in relationship together. He made the relationship safe, and showed a path through uncertainty, in a way that Elias could understand.

Now, let me go a bit deeper, and celebrate a certain kind of my father's images. He appreciated poetry but there was also a way in which he lived his own sort of poetry that left images in its wake acknowledging the more mysterious aspects of life. For example. prior to building a cabin on our land in Maine, we camped just off the beach on a little platform that rested between the rocky shore and the dense forest. During the day we would play and explore by the water's edge, build fires, skip rocks on the water, we would do everything out on the rocks and then drag ourselves, exhausted, to the tent after night fell and the bon fires on the beach dwindled to glowing coals. Nights in Maine are always cool and if there aren't clouds you can clearly see the milky-way and more stars than just about anywhere you can imagine.
On some of those nights after mom, and Chris and I drifted off to sleep, my father would lie in his sleeping bag, peaking out of tent flap to the sky and listen to the wave's slow rumbling on the beach; followed the momentary quiet before the next wave broke over the rocks. What he told me about those nights was that in the silence between waves he could often hear the sounds of children laughing and playing out there, on the rocks, under the stars, between the waves.

My father's second image begins with my mother, who woke up very late one night to the sound of my father having a conversation with someone in their bedroom. She asked him what he was doing, and he replied that he was talking to aunt Joan. My mother protested but dad insisted that Joan was sitting in the chair at their bedside, and that she was saying good-bye. Confused and sleepy my mother rolled over and resumed her slumber. It was the next day that we got the phone call informing us Joan had passed away.

My father's third image, involves something that most people don't know, this being that Seven Valleys Vineyard has a ghost. It has not been seen for many years but in our early days there an apparition was spotted by several people. But my father did more than get a glimpse of a shadowy figure, he actually encountered it. On two occasions when the rest of us were in Philadelphia, and he was spending several winter days alone at the vineyard, he encountered the apparition in the farm house. As dad was undressing by the light of a single lamp in his room, he stepped into the hallway and found himself standing before the dark figure of a Civil War soldier. This soldier wore a long blue wool coat, he had a rifle slung over his shoulder and a cap pulled down low concealing his face. My father and the solider stood before each other for a moment before the solider stepped away and vanished. This happened not once but twice; and regardless if one believes in ghosts or not what is wonderful is how my dad described these encounters to the rest of us. He didn't want to scare us, what he wanted to convey was his sense that the solider was a sentry, a protector, someone whose purpose was to watch over him and watch over the vineyard. It was an image of safety and of comfort.

These images, are small fragments from my father's life, but he gave them to us like magical little gifts in old wooden boxes, to be opened slowly and considered for a long time. What I like most about them is that while he was a very rational man, even having the word "clinical" in his job title, these images show his openness to the possibility of mystery, the unknown, the delicious yet uncertain poetry of life that lays just beyond everyday experience.

So now after describing all that it seem fitting, that we do more than reflect and celebrate. If its alright with you. A commitment that connects the best of who we each seek to be, to the best of who my father was seems fitting. So I'd like to ask a few questions, and if you are so inclined please answer by saying "we will" ( This is an audience participation )

First, can we remember to pause, to drop our defenses now and again, so as to be open and that we may allow for the possibility of that uncertain poetry, and the mysteries of life? "we will"

Can we strengthen our commitment to listening, to listening past the intentionally constructed edifices, in order to be attuned to the emotional needs behind those words, and seek to find and address the reasons for those needs.

(The congregation responds "we will")

Can we do for others what my father did for my Elias? Can we serve as agents of healing, seeking out opportunities to gather others around us, and model ways in which we can be in relationship with one another even in the presence of fear or uncertainty?

(The congregation responds "we will")

Finally, it has long been my father's tradition, that when a close friend or relative dies, he plants a tree on the vineyard and dedicates it to them as an act or remembrance. So this spring when the ground thaws and the rain falls, and the earth becomes green again, would you be willing to find a fitting place to plant a tree and dedicate it to my father's name?

(The congregation responds "we will")

There is so much more to say but my time is done, so let us keep speaking with each other in the days and the seasons to come. Thanks to my father, and thanks to you all gathered here today.