2016 had a very different Father’s Day than what I’m used to. Growing up, I was accustomed to celebrating with my dad. Over the past eighteen years, I’ve been used to getting attention from my kids and my wife. Over the last five, I’ve enjoyed celebrating with my brother who now has two daughters of his own. This year I was without all of it but my wife and my brother who was without his own children. Instead, I got a different family experience. My uncle died last week and we spent the weekend with my aunt and cousins. We didn’t know when he was going to pass, but we knew it was coming. Rather than dealing with the major shock of losing somebody close to us, we got to reflect on the life he’d led and the impact he had on everyone around him. There wasn’t any concern at all that he’d left us too early. It was his time. People were naturally sad that he was gone, but we had the opportunity to think about what he meant to us and tell stories about who he was with smiles.
My uncle was my father’s best friend growing up. He met my aunt, my mom’s sister, at my parents’ wedding. They fell in love and married soon thereafter. His oldest child was born about a month after me and my younger cousin is near my brother’s age. My mom and my aunt have been close their whole lives and we’ve always been in touch. I do the Dallas MS 150 bike ride annually to support my cousin and spend time with her family. I love them all but I know that we’re all human. My father and my uncle didn’t see eye to eye in a lot of cases. It’s fair to say that there was some animosity at points in the way which can happen over the better part of eighty years. That never diminished how much I cared for him. My mother said that she told my dad my uncle was sick and he became very concerned. Given that my father has dementia and barely remembers the childhood friend he’s had his whole life, that shows how deeply we can grow to care about someone. I remember the last conversation I had with my uncle and he still expressed regret at how my badly my dad had been stricken; that overrode the concern he had for his own failing health.
The funeral service started off with the rabbi asking a series of questions to the full room. She asked who was immediate family, family who’d traveled from afar, people who were close friends, folks who had done business with him, and so forth. I watched the hands go up around me and marveled at the impact the man had. My older cousin talked about him and put on a frumpy flannel shirt like her father had worn. Her brother stood up and told stories about their father and shared the humor he’d used to share wisdom when raising his kids. Then two of the grandkids (early- and pre-teens) talked about mundane things which they’d miss. When the youngest called him a grump with tears, we all smiled and sniffed at the love which went into it.
At the same time, everybody in the audience had to be wondering about themselves and others that they cared about. Could they pull a crowd like this to a small town in Louisiana? Were they worth the emotion? Would people overlook the flaws and think back on what we’d accomplished and smile or are our flaws going to overwhelm what we’ve built? Will the end of us be a room full of smiles and tears or the emptiness of what could have been and regret? I honestly wonder about what will happen when my father passes and if people will remember him in his prime or when the dementia pulled him into the abyss. As my wife told me, this entire blog could be simmered and reduced down to a eulogy for him if I so choose. I suppose it could also be used for me as well.
On my last day with my family there, Father’s Day, I got the chance to discuss some thoughts with my mother. I explained that I thought there were people who take life as it came to them and react to it. There are also people who decide how the world should look at them and plot a course on how that should happen. There are a variety of ways that can take shape where they mentor, demand appreciation, lead, act superior, be selfless, and more. My uncle was the type of person who could look at you and call you “darlin’” in a way which showed he meant it. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or if it’s how he ticked. I do know that it’s how he operated and why my wife loved him deeply even though she didn’t know him as long as I did. That’s why so many of the people who went to that memorial service were there: my uncle consciously made them feel good and appreciated. It overwhelmed the flaws he had and left a lasting impact on his family. Normally, I’d say that having your dad die right before Father’s Day would be a major tragedy. In this case, his presence was probably felt better than any year he’d been alive. I can’t say that I wasn’t sad, but I also say that I was happy to have the chance to remember him properly after he was gone.
My wife and I flew back home that afternoon and met our kids for dinner. We joked and laughed. We talked about what they’d done while we were gone. Our older son started a summer job. The younger son made him watch something geeky on Netflix. They ate reasonably well. They took the dogs out. Not only was the house still standing, it didn’t even show any signs of partying. We were able to show them a huge amount of trust over four days and never feared that they’d betray that responsibility. Everyone shared something and we all felt better being with each other. After dinner, my kids drove home in one car and my wife and I rode home in mine. We enjoyed the trip with the windows down and talked about the weekend we’d just gone through. We agreed that the evening was a great example of how to do things right. There’s no telling if we’ll all grow old like my uncle or have something unexpected happen. That’s all the more reason to be in that group of people who make a conscious decision on how that service at the end of our lives should look.
In the end, money and possessions don’t define us. Money can grant someone a priceless education or it can be a force which drives people to manipulate and deceive. It’s far more meaningful to understand that you can drive that student to pursue their dreams or be the shadow which brings a cloud of suspicion to everyone you deal with. The responsibility which comes with parenthood is only part of the deal. There’s also the opportunity to cause people to smile and have a bright outlook on life. The best of us can help our children understand that what’s right can be a good thing. An easy thing sometimes; a thing worth working for at other times. Providing that compass in a way that they want to take it is what fatherhood is all about. If we make a daily decision to do that, then we’ll have led lives worth living.