Neeks: That baby bird wants his mommy and daddy.
Neeks: Even big kid birds want their mommy and daddy.
Me: That's true.
Neeks: (grabs my hand) Even mommy birdies want their mommy and daddy.
I'm posting the notes to my dad's eulogy here, because several people asked to hear or see it and they were not all able to be at my dad's service yesterday. It's just the notes, I'm not sure I actually followed this - but you'll get the point.
I really thought I knew how this would go. It's not like I'd never lost anyone before. Hell - it's not like I'd never lost a parent before. Maybe that's why I am so surprised that even though I knew this was coming, knew this was eminent, maybe even knew it was best - still I am shocked, I am broken, and I cannot imagine that the rest of the world keeps turning without him in it. I'm sure I will write more later, but in the meantime:
Thank you all for coming to share this day with us. I feel like everything my dad ever wanted is right here in this room. It’s hard to believe that all of these wonderful interesting people are gathered in one place, simply because my dad lived –and he really knew how to live.
Nobody is sitting here today just because we loved my dad. We’re here today because we were loved BY him – because at one time or another, we felt his spirit, his encouraging embraces, his HOPE that something great was always coming around the bend. My father had an innate gift for seeing the best in life, the best in people. He was an absolute master at believing the good, and forgetting the rest.
I look around and all I see is good – because that is how he spoke of everyone he knew. “Rob is such a great friend,” “Ryan is so talented,” “Ken and Loretta are saints for putting up with all of us.” No matter how much pain he was in, how much he suffered, he remained so positive – because he believed the best about life, about all of us. That’s why there were so many smiles on his face, so much laughter and most important – so much faith. Faith in the fact that every person he met had good intentions - although they might not be perfect – and HE certainly never claimed to be, my father believed in humanity. He believed that even when people made mistakes, and we all did – that we were leading with the best part of our souls. He had such faith in what all of us could accomplish. He truly believed that each of us was better, smarter, more talented than even we could see for ourselves. This was the magic of my father – that even when good things weren’t true – he wanted them to be and believed in the possibility.
I can’t demonstrate this eternal optimism, this almost naïve sense of hope any better than the time he decided to take us Pheasant Hunting. I hope you don’t mind me indulging you with this story – we all know how much Gary liked a good story –especially when he was the hero – but I’m gonna tell you a different kind.
It was the summer of 1983 and although my father was in a full leg cast from a recent boating injury, he decided nonetheless to take my brother Devin and I on one of his whirlwind summer road trips to his homestead on the back roads of Flaxton, North Dakota. If you’ve ever been on the back roads of Flaxton North Dakota, you realize that the only people who could ever find their way out of those back roads are the people who LIVE in Flaxton, North Dakota. Needless to say, in my 12 year-old eyes we were in the middle of nowhere.
As we were driving on these unnamed, unpaved roads, it occurred to my dad that this would be a perfect spot to do a little Pheasant hunting. And THAT is where his GOOD ideas ended. He climbed out of the car, got his shotgun out of the trunk, and decided to do a little hunting while driving. When this proved more difficult than he originally anticipated – he told ME to get into the driver’s seat.
I was 12.
Now even at 16 I was not a great driver – if it gives you any indication, when I got behind the wheel my dad and Uncle Ken called me “Little Leora” – imagine rewinding that 4 years - I protested vehemently to this brainstorm, I had never so much as driven a go-cart, let alone a full sized automobile.
“I don’t know HOW to drive,” I said.
“She really doesn’t know how to drive,” my brother said.
“HE’S a better driver than me,” I said, pointing to the nine year old.
‘I AM a better driver than her,” he agreed
“Psssh – you can do it” my dad said – ever the optomist “Gas is on the right – brake is on the left. Let’s go.”
So you’ve got a broken leg, a shotgun and a sixth grader at the wheel – in my dad’s eyes – what could possibly go wrong? Nothing except for the fact that he couldn’t get a very good angle hanging out the passenger side window. Which was when he decided to get out and climb onto the hood of the car.
“Go” he told me. So I did.
“A little faster,” he said. I obeyed.
It wasn’t long before he found the pheasant he was looking for, and I heard him tell me to stop.
I heard him, but I didn’t want to do it, because I wasn’t quite sure how hard to hit the brake – and which of the three pedals actually was the brake.
“STOP!” he shouted. I looked at Devin for instructions. “The one on the left,” he said.
Dad turned around and banged on the windshield “STOP!!!!”
So I did.
I slammed on the brakes as hard as I could while Devin and I watched my father, his broken leg and shotgun sail 15 feet through the air before coming to a rolling stop on a gravel road. I was pretty sure I had killed him.
Now the story would be tragic enough if it just ended there – but it didn’t.
Since I had slammed on the brakes so hard, the car was still skidding forward and in my panic, I assumed that I was actually stepping on the gas – so I switched pedals.
I will never forget the look on my dad’s face, as he lay in that gravel road in the middle of nowhere, unable to move, with his shot gun pointing in our general vicinity, knowing his only chance at life was to take out the tires or the driver.
With Devin frantically screaming “other pedal – other pedal!” I slammed on the brakes once more, but not before I heard a thud – and saw my dad disappear under the front of the car.
We didn’t breathe, we didn’t move, we didn’t dare. Until we heard the sound of scraping gravel, and saw two sets of fingers pulling him up to the driver’s side window.
“GET OUT.” Is all he said.
I tell that story to illustrate the point that my dad believed in me – he believed I could drive that car – even when all evidence pointed to the contrary. He believed it enough, that he put our entire family’s lives in my 12 year-old hands.
And when I failed, he was the first to forgive me.
It’s not my place to stand here and tell you who my dad was. He was something different to each of us, - a favorite cousin, an employer, a partner in crime. You all see him through the lens of your own lives and experiences.
I just consider myself lucky to have had such a large looking glass. To me, my father he was a dreamer, a schemer, a perpetual Peter-Pan, a man who tried to grow up and never quite got the hang of it, a songbird, a storyteller, and a gourmet cook. He was a man who treasured his family and friends more than anything. He was grateful - incredibly grateful for even the smallest kindnesses. He was silly, he worried when people were angry with him, he loved to win at BINGO, he rode bucking broncos and played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters, he still cried about the wife he lost 35 years ago and agonized over relationships that he struggled to mend. He was proud of his newspaper business, but even prouder to call the people who worked for him his friends. He took his kids on road trips every summer and made sure we knew the lyrics to every Buddy Holly song by heart. He loved the Packers, piled mountains of Christmas presents under his tree each year, and could eat half a pan of enchiladas in one sitting. He met five presidents, stole an island from the Federal Government and rode a monster truck down the Mississippi River – and that’s just for starters. My dad was never afraid to fail – just afraid to quit dreaming.
One of the things he dreamed about most was leaving an inheritance to his children and grandchildren. I tried to tell him that I didn’t need or want anything. But he wouldn’t hear it. It was one of the very few things that saddened him in recent years, feeling that he was not leaving anything of value behind when he moved on.
There were no words I could use to help him see my point – he wanted to give us something tangible, something we could keep forever – something we could pass down to his grandchildren and the generations after that. Since this seems to be the one unfinished piece of business in his life, I would like to share with you what exactly my dad DID leave to us:
Through Noah, Pa left all of us his love of nature, his trust in humanity, and his ability to never grow up and to always ALWAYS keep believing in the possibility of magic.
Through Kaia, Pa left his culinary expertise, his songbird voice and the ability to tell a good story – because you are the only person in the world who has ever answered my question the exact same way he did: When I asked, “Is that a story that’s true – or one you WISH was true?” “BOTH!” you’d say.
With Brookelyn, he left behind one of his most treasured gifts – his ability to love deeply, forgive quickly and always wish and work for peace with the people around you.
Through Vinnie we can relive my dad’s youth and his athleticism. We also get to hang onto his sense of fair play, and his ability to work as a team player to accomplish something bigger than himself.
Because of Bailey we will always see my dad’s smile that “slightly mischievous and always happy to see you,” smile. We also get to hold on to his never-ending curiosity and the reminder that a good adventure always begins with trying something new.
And last not least, through little Nika – his fourth and final princess, he left every ounce of singing-silly- songs and making goofy faces for the sheer joy of watching and your reaction. Anything for a laugh. And boy, did her Pa love helping her hone that skill.
Those are the things my dad left for us. So what exactly can we give to him? Well, I know what he expects . . . he fully believes that each of us will live AMAZING LIVES – HUGE LIVES, full of wonder and love and REALLY GOOD stories. He believes that we will live the kind of adventures he could only dream about for the past 8 years. He would want us to open our eyes, open our minds, open our LIVES to the possibility of love, of forgiveness, of adventure of MAGIC.
Live BIG – because the greatest gift that any of us can give back to my dad, is to be even half as wonderful as he already imagined us to be.