This is the eulogy I spoke for my dad a week ago at his church funeral.
A few years ago, while at my parents’ house for the weekend, mom fixed a summer’s dinner feast and served it in the gorgeous sun room my parents built off our childhood home. The setting sun was golden, all the neighbors lawns glowed lush green. We smelled fresh-cut grass and felt the cool breeze through the screens. As we dished up, mom said to my three siblings and I, “Dad wants to talk to you about something.”
She turned to him and said, “Dad?”
It’s never a good sign when mom queues up dad for a talk.
We paused while dad cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses, well-recognized signs of a pronouncement.
He said, “The other night when Mom and I were doing this dishes we noticed three pieces of our everyday silverware were missing. Specifically, a fork and two spoons. We we think one of you kids stole them.”
We looked to mom and with the hint of a smile she said, “Actually, two forks and a knife.”
This is how it goes in our family.
I immediately accused my sister Eileen, insisting that she has always had those beady, criminal eyes. Eileen accused our older sister, recounting how Andrea had the perfect opportunity the previous weekend. Mom smiled sweetly to me and said, “It’s hard to trust a Minnesotan.”
While we made more unjust accusations, our younger brother Matt – perhaps the best among us – calculated the price of the missing silverware to be roughly $1.47, so he took two bucks from his wallet and slapped it on the table, saying he would gladly pay for replacements if it would stop our parents baseless accusations. To the rest of us, this looked suspiciously like admission of guilt and we let him know it.
(Later that evening, we discovered the missing silverware between couch cushions, but that’s not the point.)
Our parents never stopped playing with us.
After almost four decades of their kids, they still delighted in us. They never stopped enjoying being our mom and dad. The Easter Bunny still comes every year, as does Santa. Part of our family’s playfulness was dad’s outrageousness.
If you knew my dad for more than 10 minutes, then he may have accused you of something insane or made some absurd comment designed to make your eyes pop open and your jaw drop. Mom frequently would gasp at his inappropriateness and say, “Joe, why on earth would you say that?” But she loved his humor. Although she never knew what he was going to say next, she was still always in on the joke.
Once you got past the shock value, you realized his humor was not unkind.
He did not find racist jokes funny, and he did not enjoy humor that intended to put people down. He refused to gossip and speak ill of others. There was no joy in that and he preferred joyful laughter. If anyone was made the butt of his humor, it was he himself. His humor reflected his personality: gentle, compassionate, humble.
And yes, a little off-kilter.
As my high school English teacher, he introduced The Bridge of San Luis Rey to our junior year World Literature class by cocking his head and saying, “And now, we begin a heartwarming tale about five people who plunge to their deaths when an ancient rope bridge in Peru collapses. Yes, a beautiful, beautiful story.”
I remember some of us giving each other askew glances. Beautiful?
When he retired after 34 years of teaching English and Latin, he reread all the literature he had taught. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he read many of those books again and at last I understood why he taught the same classics year after year: he loved them, and he wanted his students to love them too, to see their off-kilter beauty as he did.
He loved teaching. He gleefully regaled students with tales of the Proto-Indo-European Language theory and would feign deep shock and surprise when we did not share his glee. Despite his sometimes obvious frustration at the inability conjugate Latin verbs (and yes, he got a little growly with us from time to time), despite that,he forgave our shortcomings on a daily basis.
In the reception line last night, I heard from one of his former students, “He was tough and never let me get away with the foolishness I tried to get away with. But he remained one of the best teachers I ever had.” He took great pleasure in hearing in hearing from former students long after they graduated. He sometimes used their update letters as bookmarks.
And there was a special place in his heart for the high school football players whom he coached. Dad’s face would light up when he talked about boys he watched turn into confident young men, and when he would relive their stories, he never talked about their stats or number of games won but about their courage, their endurance. He marveled at their strength to get back up.
When he was a high school student himself, dad broke records at St. Ed’s, and went to Loras college his first two years on a football scholarship, but rarely talked about his glory days. He preferred to reminisce about the men who brought joy to his love of football. He was deeply honored when former players became lifelong friends.
Despite the fact that he loved coaching, reading Shakespeare for fun, and agonizing over each Cubs, Bears, and Bulls game, I honestly believe that he would prefer to be remembered for two things primarily, the first being that he was a Christian.
He loved God.
He loved Jesus Christ.
He and mom prayed the rosary every single day. Dad loved the life they made for themselves in this faith community, and though I live out of state, I’d have to say that I met most of their prayer group and the morning mass crowd through our extended phone calls. Mom and dad would take turns telling me about how these friends had touched their hearts. The Monday coffer countings, the weekend retreats, what Father Steve said, who was at mass on different week days and what new horrible thing dad said to make everyone laugh.
Dad studied in seminary and although he did not take final vows, it sometimes seems like he did. Church was not just a Sunday pre-game show. He was a Catholic who eagerly loved many facets of his faith. When the going got tough, he prayed.
I think the second way he would very much want to be remembered is as Peggy’s husband.
When I was 11, we vacationed to South Dakota to visit Mt. Rushmore and see the legendary corn palace. In the Keystone motel at the base of Mt. Rushmore, Matt and I shared a double-bed in the same room with mom and dad. Andrea and Eileen slept next door with Dad’s great card playing companion, our mom’s mom, Mabel Hemmer. Dad didn’t just like his mother-in-law, they were great friends.
That night, I secretly stayed up late and furtively watched the 10:00 news, the defiant gesture of a soon-to-be teenager. After the news and nightly prayers, they turned out the room lights and after a few moments of stillness I heard mom say softly, “I love you, Joe.”
And he replied, “I love you, Peggy.”
And I remember thinking, “Ewwwww.”
C’mon. I was 11.
But that moment stayed with me, and as I matured, I came to realize what they were really saying. They were well past the blush of newlywed years. Something tells me after traveling across a few states with four young kids hopped up on fast food and manically fixated on getting to the next motel swimming pool, they had probably moved beyond the thrill of early child-rearing years.
No, what mom really said was, “I love my life with you.”
And in his reply, he meant, “I love my life with you.”
Mom was his partner in all things, his confidant, his adviser. She screamed hard at his every home football game and warmed up dinner when he got home late from away games. She helped grade multiple choice papers. For every school event where she provided a dish, he took the credit, and she let him. It was just Joe.
In later years, you might see them power walking around Huntley, picking up trash and saying the rosary. Whenever they found change on the sidewalk, they put it in a special mug at home, and used it as starter money for each Lenten season’s rice bowl or some other charity for children. Only my parents could pull off an environmental, spiritual fundraiser while losing weight.
They’re a tough act to follow.
When dad first learned of his widespread cancer almost 15 months ago, I sat in his hospital room and we wept together. He told me that these retired years with mom were some of the happiest of his life and he just wanted more time with her, their church friends, and our amazing extended family. We got that time, a wonderful year to savor him and our family life.
This last year on Valentines Day, we were back in the hospital again and when he presented her with a Valentines Day gift from him, mom said, “Who did this?”
Dad said, “I have people.”
Inside her card, in faltering pen, he had written, ‘My hand is shaky but my love is not.’
I have to believe that all sons and daughters who had a good father, a wonderful father, want a public statue erected in that man’s honor, to show the world a great man walked among us. How will the world know how much we loved him, how much he gave? But sometimes we must be content with the statues we create in our hearts.
The statue I would make has him walking across our steeply-pitched roof on Myrtle street with a storm window in his hands, nails in his mouth, and a hammer swings from his belt loop. He’s wearing the Huntley High School Redskins jacket he sometimes wore when he coached games and on his head perches a maroon knit cap holding down his comb-over. Mom waits inside a few feet away, inside the house, ready to hook it into place, partnering with him once again. Dangling from one back pocket is his rosary and in the other, two forks and a knife. The inscription underneath is the last line from The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which reads:
“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”