On August 9, 2019, my father suffered an ocular stroke, causing him to go blind. After several days in the hospital, he lost considerable physical strength. I traveled back to New Jersey on August 16, and was able to work with my brother for three weeks as we helped Dad get the care he needed–first in rehab and then at a long-term care facility. After a month in long-term care, Dad developed pneumonia. On October 10, 2019, sometime in the early morning hours, Dad died peacefully in his sleep. We were fortunate and blessed to have many opportunities to express our love and gratitude to one another. We knew that Dad was ready to go when he died. He was 83 years old. I gave this eulogy at his funeral on October 18, 2019.
I feel like I should start with his socks. Maybe about ten years ago, Dad got into whimsical socks–bright colors, brash designs. They became his signature look and he would take such delight when someone would notice them. He would laugh, and his eyes would dance for a moment: “You like my socks?”
This delight in the whimsical is a thread that ran through Dad’s life. The stories he recounted time and again often had whimsy at their heart: Jack the hunting dog who only ever chased butterflies; the time he painted his car with a paintbrush and it came out rough as sandpaper. His whimsy also came out in his artwork. He did fabulous caricatures and loved drawing comics, usually ones that poked fun at himself.
He often expressed his love of whimsy through clothing. He told me clothes are nothing but costuming and through them you can be whoever you want. So at first, it was maybe just hats. Then in the mid 1990s–cowboy hats. And then cowboy everything. My brother often called Dad the only cowboy in the State of New Jersey.
Just like with the socks, when Dad decided he liked something, he was all in. He didn’t have just a few pairs of socks, or a few cowboy hats, or a few cowboy boots–but dozens, in every color and style–taking joy in the sheer whimsy of it.
Dad also laughed at the way he would get into things passionately for a time. He started to call himself the Dancing Bear because of the way he would find something new and go all in. Until after a while, he’d dance along and find something else new, and go all in again–leaving the former passion behind with barely a glance. Gardening, photography, family history, country music, wood working, socks. So…whimsy.
But also fierce determination. If our father set his mind on something, he would not be moved. He loved to talk about the years he was a runner. And he loved to talk about it not because he loved running, but precisely because he hated running. He hated it with a passion: hated sweating; hated getting up early to run; hated the dog that chased him when he ran; hated running in the rain; hated running in the snow; and on beautiful, breezy, perfect days, Dad hated running. “But!” he would say, “I did it. Every day. I hated it. But I did it.”
He talked about quitting smoking in the same way when we were kids. And he would tell us: it’s just a matter of will power. If you set your mind to it, you can do it. You just have to decide.
I often tell my husband and son that when we would go camping, on the really cold mornings Dad would insist that my brother and I still dress in shorts when we got up. “It’s going to be hot later,” he would proclaim to us. I think that was one way he was trying to teach us will power: just decide you’re going to be hot later and let that be enough. Make up your mind now, and go with it.
There were ways this fierce determination served Dad (and us) exceptionally well. And ways that he suffered because of it. He held himself and others to impossibly high standards. I caught a glimpse of this when he would refer to the portraits he painted of my brother and me around 1980. Even forty years later, Dad would always refer to my brother’s portrait as “the painting I did that looked nothing like your brother.” It was great, but he wouldn’t ever be convinced.
My Dad was a gifted artist, although he had a way of downplaying that gift. When I was young, he tried for a while to teach me how to draw. I think he finally gave up, but before he did, he tried to say it as plainly as he could: “It’s not about drawing,” he told me. “It’s about seeing. Really seeing. Seeing the lines. Seeing the shapes that make up forms. Seeing the light and where it falls. Seeing the shadows. And seeing the relationships between things.”
The last two months for Dad were really, really hard. When he lost his sight as a result of the stroke, he held out hope that he might regain some vision. But eventually it became clear that he would be blind for the rest of his life. He lost everything during those two months–his home, his strength, his independence, his many hats, his beloved antiques, and his ability to see his whimsical socks.
He lost everything and it was such a privilege for my brother and me to accompany Dad through those days. He used all that fierce determination, built over his lifetime, and he kept his spirits up. He never complained. He was unwaveringly grateful for all that we were doing. He told us again and again that he loved us and was proud of us. He asked after those he loved and had loved. My brother told me that for all of Dad’s life, Dad would say a simple prayer when he would go to bed at night: “I’m warm. I’m dry. And I’ve got a roof over my head. Thank you.”
As we sat with Dad, first at rehab and then at St. Mary’s, he would repeat this refrain to us: “I’m warm. I’m dry. I’ve got a roof over my head. And!” he would add, with emphasis, “I’ve got my family.”
And up until the last week or so, at every visit, Dad would laugh. He loved to laugh with us–that great whimsy dancing up into his eyes once again.
In the end, I am convinced, Dad didn’t give up. He just turned his mind to the next thing. He made his decision and he went all in. And he would not be moved. He gave us a great gift by letting us know he had had enough. He would be the first to say he had a good life. He did what he loved. He loved and was loved. And it was enough.