Sunday, August 3, 2008

Back home from saying goodbye to Dad

Yesterday we held the memorial service for my father. It was a good day filled with memories, some tears, and a lot of conversation. I feel like I met two hundred people yesterday all of whom had lovely things to say about Dad. It made me proud and exhausted at the same time. Having now been a family member twice now at a funeral let me say I have real sympathy for how hungry and thirsty family members can get trying to get to the refreshments and having to stop every two feet.

Four of my friends from Lethbridge came to the service and I can not express how much that meant to me. It gives you incredible strength to know that your 'peeps' are holding you up in their hearts when you knees are going weak and you are in danger of losing it. Yes, I know tears are okay. But I had spent two weeks writing my reflection and I wanted to be able to read the whole thing.

This is what I wrote for my father:

When it became obvious that something was really wrong Dad sat down and chose the poems and some of the music we are hearing today for his service. He has always loved Dylan Thomas – I remember being forced to listen to a Child’s Christmas in Wales when I was too young to appreciate it – but I wish now I had the opportunity to ask him why these two poems. The thing is that he didn’t seem to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ when he was dying. From when he was diagnosed until the doctor told him that he had only a week or two to live he was what he described as fatalistic. He explained to me that he didn’t mean this in the sense of thinking that there was no hope, but in the sense that he thought things would progress the way that they were going to progress and he couldn’t wish it away. He appreciate that people were praying for him, he appreciated the care that it was reflected in such prayers, and he left open the possibility that there may be someone hearing those prayers, but he didn’t rage against God or the unfairness of this disease. Or if he did he did it quietly where we couldn’t hear it.

So my first reaction was that this poem was inappropriate for him. But then a friend pointed out to me that it did reflect much of how he lived his life. For my father did rage against social, political and economic forces that worked to diminish the light in people’s lives. Much of what motivated him was outrage when people were not treated decently or fairly. His work, his political involvement and much of his community involvement was driven by a commitment to social justice for all, especially those who were marginalized or silenced. More recently he raged against economic and political decisions which threaten the environment and the lives of future generations.

Even his social activities, his involvement with music, playing polo, sailing, building things, working in the garden were not trivial endeavors. Although they offered relief from the anger he often felt about economic and political matters they were still matters to be pursued with intensity. Even his leisure activities were opportunities to build community, create beauty, encourage the human spirit. He did not go gentle into any good night.

His passion was not always easy to live with. There were times when rage spilled out over us and times when it felt like Dad’s commitments to these bigger causes took priority over his family. And yet we were drawn into and shaped by his passions. In our owns ways Mom and Nicki and I share Dad’s passion for justice and beauty and community. While we may have found him at times infuriating he was not a trivial or a boring man and we are immeasurably changed by our life with him.

Many years ago I first read Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen there was one part that reminded me strongly of Dad’s way of living his life. The main character Reuven is worried about that his father is working too hard when he should be looking after his health. His father responds,

“Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?”…I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”

Dad’s life was filled with meaning and he was worthy of his rest. But his dying was not just an end to that full and rich life. Even his dying itself was invested with meaning.

Dad has never been one to talk much about personal feelings and for most of my life he wouldn’t talk about death. He didn’t visit friends when they were dying and he hated going to funerals. Something significant shifted in him, however, when his sister Ruth died and I think it casts light on his choice of Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no More Dominion”. When his only sister was diagnosed with cancer he phoned and visited her often and the week she died he flew out to be with her. When he phoned me to tell me Auntie Ruth had died he told me all about the week. He described how people had come to say goodbye and how it all felt. He told me how he felt being in the house and being with her. So out of character was this, I remember thinking, “who are you and what have you done with my father?” For most of his life I think he feared death but in that week spent with Ruth and her partner Joy and all their friends something changed in him and death had no more dominion.

After that he visited his friends when they were dying. He told me of one visit, how they had talked about their friendship and what they meant to each other. He expressed regret when another friend died before he had a chance to say goodbye. He was a changed man, a better friend, and in his own dying he was able to be a better husband and father. For whatever fear he may have had about dying he was not paralyzed by it. His big worry was us and how hard this was for us looking after him. Yet he was able to accept our help. He was able to allow us to care for him. Death had no more dominion.

And I think I can say for all of us, for my Mom and my sister, for our family and friends, who gathered with him that week that something has shifted in us because we walked that final week with him. Afterwards I met with a friend who lost her father two years ago. We shared our stories of what it was like walking on that holy ground: she said, “your heart is breaking but it is also breaking open.” Dad allowed us to care for him in a way we had never done before and in the process our hearts were broken open to love for him and for each other. And Death has no more dominion.

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