I just came back from going to see my father one last time. A couple of weeks ago, I found out he passed away in his home in North Carolina. His caretaker found him collapsed on the floor of his bedroom. I spent the next few days with my brother talking to police about what happened, calling the county clerk’s office, notifying extended family, and arranging memorial services.
It was sobering traveling back to the small town where he lived. I had only been there one other time but the house was pretty much how I remember it – small and meager. The rocking chair was still there as was the mostly empty refrigerator, seeds he collected (he had a bowlful of old peach pits that he said he wanted to plant but never did), file cabinets and computers comprising his home office. I was there with my brother but got a chance to rummage through the house on my own for a few hours. I went through practically everything. I guess I just wanted to get a sense of what his life was like since I hadn’t seen him in some time. There were things I remembered as a kid – the same stoneware dishes with the blue trim, the same water filter, the same kneeling chairs and drafting table and unique vacuum cleaner that you had to fill up with water to use that we had when we were growing up. The same old car in the driveway.
There was endless paperwork filed away in his many file cabinets. He saved everything from email printouts to scientific and business articles he liked. Old receipts and photocopies of checks from the 80s and 90s. I was hoping to find a personal note or something like that but the closest thing I found was business correspondence that was usually concise and blunt. Or a copy of a canceled check for the gardener with the scrawl “don’t hire this guy again.” I guess that’s just the way he was.
Some people dropped by the house to give their condolences. The town was small enough that even the grocer and the guy at the post office recognized who my dad was by name. I was pretty impressed how friendly people were but I did notice my brother, wife, and I got a few more looks than we’re used to. I guess we just stuck out as fresh faces. Toward the end of the trip I began to appreciate the idea of living in a small town where everyone recognizes you. I appreciated the mortuary which seemed to handle things with care and sensitivity. We also got to talk a little more to my dad’s caretaker, who saw him the night before. She went to the store and fed him some oysters and Perrier for dinner, which seemed appropriate given my Dad’s tastes. He told her that night that he was feeling sad and didn’t know why.
There were all these little questions that came up regarding the funeral, estate, and his home. Like what quote or poem to include in the funeral program (we vaguely remembered he liked Max Ehrmann’s poem, Desiderata). Or what clothes to pick out for my Dad to wear (I tried to match this photo). Or how do we find a gardener to mow the lawn of my Dad’s place (the town had ordinances on grass length). The whole time I was really appreciative of Lauren being there. She scrubbed the floor of my Dad’s bedroom, help hunt for different documents, and went from place to place with us as we tried to tie up loose ends. I hope she was able to get a glimpse of what my Dad was like by the stuff around the house and the various stories people had because she never met him in person. I was pretty sad about that.
It was tough writing his eulogy. Every time I tried to write it I ended up scrapping the whole thing and rewriting it from scratch. This is what I ended up with:
I always thought my father was different. He lived a quiet life, often by himself for most of his years. Most of the time he spent working trying to grow his various small businesses. So when I was young, I felt I grew up along side his home office.
He was often busy with work but I still had many fond, childhood memories of my dad, which included fishing trips to Eastern Oregon, going to the pet store to pick out fish and hamsters, and driving around the neighborhood on the weekends trying to find garage sales. I remember him taking us out to some remote place to catch a glimpse of Halley’s comet late one night and having him carry me back to bed when we got home after I was fast asleep in the car.
He cared for my brother and me. He wanted us to be healthy, smart, and productive. To eat right, write well, and have good hygiene. To plan out our days, and be hard-working. He always had chores for me to do. He was a strict disciplinarian and punished me whenever he found out I did something wrong. He wanted to make sure I was raised right – honest, responsible, and respectable. My dad taught me about fishing, typing, and chess. How to shine shoes and how to cook rice on the stove top. I remember on Saturday mornings he would sit with me at the dining table with some scratch paper and go over algebra and trigonometry. He always wanted me to be learning something.
When I was older I told him I was thankful of those days he went over math with me as a kid and he said he didn’t remember. It was sad in a way. I could tell he was getting old and forgetful. Every time I hugged him he felt softer and more frail. And somehow that left an impression on me. That someone who I looked up to my whole life, who taught and guided me, who was strict and punished me, could have been so weak and frail in his old age.
I love my father. Every time I called him up and told him that, I could tell it made his day. I wish I could have told him that more. I can still see that smile he had when he looked at me. That smile of being so proud of me. Not really of anything I had done but just of being his son. It was a really special feeling to have.
It’s hard to really write about anyone’s life in summary. You just grab a few pieces here and there and hope something sticks in the end.
We held a small, simple funeral service with just seven people attending: my brother, his husband, my wife, my mom, two of my uncles and me. Most of us came up with a few stories about him. We put together a collage of old photos we found in his house. I thought it was a really good time to remember my often strict and unusual father. I think he would have liked it.