What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. ~Pericles
One week ago, I received the message I’d been anticipating and dreading for months. Dad passed away, peacefully and quietly, on August 3.
As you’d expect, we’ve spent the last several days with family and friends, making preparations and reminiscing over old photos. While there were certainly tears, it truly was a time of remembering and honoring the man my Dad was.
I am what survives of me. ~Erik Erikson
“Legacy” is a pretty hefty word, isn’t it?
It outlines your responsibility to pass on something of value to the next generation.
My dad was a hard-working, down-to-earth guy. Stable and solid. He led by example, not by force.
As a child – and later as a rebellious, moody teenager – I certainly didn’t appreciate much of what my parents did, nor who they were. But Dad just kept on being exactly who he was, because that was all he knew how to be.
And as it turns out, he ended up teaching us many, many lessons just by living his life. As the mourners came to the viewing, one by one they shared with us how much they appreciated Dad – his honesty, his spirit, his loyalty, his skill, his sense of fairness, and his willingness to help everyone.
Dad left us an admirable legacy. And as a tribute to my dad, I’d like to share this legacy with you.
Things My Dad Taught Me
1. Use the talents you have. You may be differently talented than the person next to you, but if you use your skills and work hard, you’ll be OK.
Dad was always working. He had a full-time job as an HVAC supervisor at a local hospital, and he had a lawn and garden tractor business at home. Mom ran the shop during the day, and Dad fixed mowers and weed whackers during the evenings and on weekends.
When he’d finished a repair, Dad would drive to customers’ houses to deliver the fixed tractors, and he’d often take me along (probably to give Mom a break from the frequent sibling spats.)
Once the restored equipment was off the trailer, he’d hang out for a while for some chit-chat. And often, he’d want to show off my skills: I learned to read at a really young age, so he’d hand me something to read aloud – a newspaper, an instruction manual – and stand there proudly as his four-year-old explained how to start the trimmer and revealed the day’s horoscope.
Dad didn’t read well, so he was especially proud of the grades his kids earned. I strongly suspect he was dyslexic to some degree, but back in the day, no one checked for that – they just whacked your knuckles with a ruler and told you to sit up straight. (Catholic school flashback, anyone?)
I distinctly remember one time where he went to get ice cream for us, and came back with a large tub:
Dad: <covering the flavor with his hand> Guess what kind I bought?
Kids: Chocolate? Rocky Road?
Dad: Peanut Butter! <reveals flavor>
Kids: Um…Dad…that says “Butter Pecan.”
Not wanting Dad to feel bad, we enthusiastically dug in to the Butter Pecan ice cream. (It WAS ice cream, after all.) But this memory still hurts my heart. Dad loved us and wanted to provide for us, and he worked incredibly hard to do so, despite these struggles.
How? Dad was an ace mechanic. He spoke the secret language of engines – if it had a motor, he could get it running.
As a teenager, I didn’t really appreciate this talent. I had a conversation with my mom about this once: I noted that she was really intelligent, had graduated second in her class, after all, so why didn’t she marry someone smart, like a doctor? Couldn’t she have done…better? (Yeah, ouch.)
But Mom responded – undoubtedly more gracefully than I deserved – that Dad works really hard, he’s really handy around the house, and he faithfully comes home every night to spend time with his family. In other words, he possessed the qualities that mattered, and was a real catch that most women would be thrilled to have.
Dad worked two jobs for most of his life, and he raised three (mostly) decent human beings in a huge house. We had enough to wear, plenty to eat, and we were safe and loved.
I get it now, Mom. I truly do.
2. Not everything can be fixed. But most things can be if you take them apart and really look at them.
Like I said, Dad was a champion mechanic. There wasn’t a trimmer or tractor that could outsmart him. And this talent expanded to household appliances, too. Broken record player? (Kids, ask your grandparents.) Dad to the rescue! Fridge starting to sound like it’s attempting to contact an alien species? Drag it away from the wall and let Dad work his magic.
Because he could bring discarded, abandoned devices back to life, we had some unique appliances in the household. We were the first kids on the block to have a paper shredder, and the only ones I knew of who had a trash compactor. (And how much fun is that? Who needs cable TV when you can squish several takeout boxes into a cardboard pancake?)
Dad was the Engine Whisperer who revived many a mechanical Lazarus. Ya gotta respect those mad skills. Heck, he kept his own ticker going for over a year and a half, despite the puzzled wonder of several cardiologists.
There can be a lot of life left in things you think are broken. I’m trying to remember that with my marriage right now. We’re taking it apart, replacing the gaskets, and cleaning the little pieces in an attempt to put it all back together. Once we flush all the gunk out, it just might work.
It’s worth a shot.
3. It’s OK to cry if you’re sad.
Dad came from a family that didn’t talk much about feelings. But when we left home – for boot camp or college – he’d stand at the window, quietly watching the car pull away, a tear or two silently falling.
We’d witness this scene every time we came home for a visit. As soon as we packed up the car and left, we’d see him standing there, at the window or in the driveway, showing us without words how much we were loved.
4. Let your inner child come out and play once in a while. (Even in church sometimes.)
Dad had a bit of a mischievous streak. (I suppose I come by mine honestly.)
My cousin’s kids called Dad The Tickle Man, because at family gatherings, no child could walk past him without being grabbed for a tickle.
At Mass, we’d often be standing silently in prayer, hands folded serenely in front of us…when, without warning, he’d unclasp his hands, pull back his left arm, and gently shove his right fist backwards – smack into the elbow or ribs of whichever child was standing next to him. This inevitably resulted in a giggle, which snowballed into chuckles (from everyone except Mom, who shot us The Look. Lord help you if you dropped a hymnal.)
So, in Dad’s honor, here’s some wildly inappropriate funeral humor. (You’ve been warned.)
As we traveled to the funeral, my siblings and I were trying to make arrangements via text, picking out songs, Bible verses, flowers, and what shirt to bury Dad in.
Me: Oh, your uncle says that the grandkids need to provide a bouquet for the viewing.
Daughter: A bouquet? Like you do at weddings? Do we toss it at the end to see who’s next?
(She’s my kid, alright.)
Later, at the viewing:
Neighbor: <speaking to Mom> Dick was a great man with a great business. Now you should take his place.
Me: <eyeing casket, horrified> Uh…not right now!
We laughed until we cried. (The neighbor man was slightly mortified.)
And at the funeral service:
Priest: God loves us and wants us to be closer to Him. He wants us to be with Him. He wants you. <dramatic pause> And right now, God wants Dick.
<insert two beats of stunned silence>
My daughter snorted. Audibly. And the shoulder-shaking that followed was surely captured as an abnormality on the global seismic monitor.
Dad would heartily approve.
And, most importantly…last, but not least:
5. There’s always room for ice cream. (And you don’t always have to tell your mother.)
This one hardly needs explanation. Because ice cream.
I can’t stop for ice cream without thinking about Dad. Frequently, when we were out on a service call for the tractor shop, we’d sneak off to the local Quickie Mart for a small treat – a Scooter Crunch, Strawberry or Chocolate Eclair:
And, some evenings, the whole family would pile in the car and head to the ice cream shop just up the road. Dad would invariably get a soft-serve vanilla cone dipped in a chocolate concoction that hardened the instant it hit the ice cream. (This was back before Magic Shell was a thing you could buy in the store and have any time you wanted, like for breakfast or something.)
Dad ordered this primarily so he could tease the wait staff while they dipped the cone – the ice cream had to be turned upside-down in order to be dipped, and once in a while, the entire wad would schplop right off into the vat of chocolate topping. This proved so tremendously amusing (even though it only actually happened twice that I can remember) that he ordered this – and we watched for the ice-cream avalanche – every single time.
Sadly, that shop closed long ago – but there are plenty of mom-and-pop ice cream stands between my childhood home and the airport where I could honor my dad appropriately.
And when I got home, I tried a new place here in the Midwest – you know, for Dad. Check out the size of this bad boy.
I indulged without guilt, self-judgment, or fretting about how many marathons I’d have to run to burn that off. I ate enthusiastically, heartily, and with joy. And I almost finished it all. Even though I did leave just a little, I think Dad would be proud of my efforts:
I love you, daddy, and I miss you already. Get some rest. Give Grandma a hug for me and save me a seat next to you on the organ bench. I’ll be ready to sing with you when I get there.
You can’t change your fingerprints. You have only ten of them. And you leave them on everything you touch; they are definitely not a secret. ~Al Franken