Monday, July 15, 2013

The Eternal Bookshelf

I recently lost my father. After suffering from a pile of physical and mental failures that were getting progressively worse in his eighty-sixth year of life, he finally let go. We wept for our loss, but knew it also meant, regardless of what one may believe, that he suffered no more.
Of course this brought my family together rather hastily. My two brothers and my sister and some of our kids and grandkids showed up here and there throughout a four day period.
There was sadness, but more so than that there was joy in reunion. Old friends, acquaintances, many I did not know at all, others I hadn't seen in decades.
There were, rather awkwardly, ex spouses there as well, we handled it all very diplomatically, working tirelessly to avoid creating any new drama, constantly recalling the reason for our being together.
I got to see my eldest son for the first time in years, my daughter as well. We had time to sit together and share and catch up. Priceless.
From the start, while we shopped for a casket, flowers, were interviewed about services and songs, my oldest brother, Dr. Steve, expressed a desire to eulogize our dear father at the funeral. I knew this would be tough and had adamantly turned down the opportunity myself. I love my father dearly, and I have lots of ways to say it, but my forte is hardly speaking in public. It's far from Steve's venue of preference either. But due probably out of filial obligation as the eldest son, he felt a need to take on the task.
He worked long and hard on the speech, struggling with every word and sentence. He's by admission not a  frequent or especially gifted writer so it was a lot of work for him. 
On Saturday morning he looked nervous, and with a quiver in his voice as he took to the podium, he read.
" My Dad was a man who lived life to the fullest.
George Bush senior once said that the true Heroes in life are the men who just get up every day quietly and work hard to take care of their families. They love them and never really need to bring attention to themselves, they have no need to be in the limelight or to change the world."

So true. Sure, hardly anyone these days bothers to quote either of the Bush Presidents, but it was spot on.
At the next paragraph I slumped in my seat. Steve held up a familiar book.

"In the published book “My Dad is My Hero”  My brother Dennis wrote about our dad as being a man of demonstrable character, charm and humor and most of all modest . . . He never leaped over tall buildings but he always gave more to others than he ever received"
It's not like I had forgotten the essay in that book. It's just that I didn't recall every word. I wrote that several years ago and had not looked back at it in a very long time.
It is however, very accurate. I would not change a word of it. (That's actually an inside joke. Though my dad indeed never leaped over tall buildings, he did fall down through and off of, several buildings.)
Another story from that short essay came up from another eulogizer, about the time my dad got up during a rare Christmas dinner, one of the few times that all the adult siblings had been with them at the same time, to go to a neighbor's to help them with a washing machine emergency. None of us were shocked or insulted, it's just what he did. He took care of problems, answered every call. He lived only to serve others. We understood, we even chuckled about it at the time.
I was, of course, flushed with pride, touched that my silly little essay carried as much meaning to others as it did for me while I was writing it. I had struggled over that essay though not with writing it, that was easy. The tough part was deciding what not to write about, simply too many great stories for the measly word count allowed by that publisher.
So when Dr. Steve and Judge Redd passed on these things I'd written about, I was touched, truly and deeply touched. I was also a bit embarrassed, because that's my natural reaction to public mention, I never feel as though  I actually deserve it.
But objectively it all seemed right, accurate and true. I actually felt honored.
Steve and I don't talk often, and rarely very deeply. He's a psychologist and I always feel a little guarded talking to him. Not that he's given  me any actual reason to, but still, he's a psychologist and can certainly see through, if I say the wrong thing, the thin veneer that I present to people as opposed to the much darker and more damaged critter I see myself as actually being.
There was also, from very early on, the age difference. At our current ages it's really not that much, but when we were young, a six year difference was like two out of sync universes. Our orbits rarely intersected. We shared no friends, no interests, no common history or experiences. Then we both moved well apart and in different directions, to explore our own lives at our own pace.
Then he got up there and held that book up like a fiery pentecostal preacher would a worn and dog-eared Bible.
He read from it.
But that's not the whole thing. It's what happened right after the service that really grabbed my gut.
The service was concluded, the family lined up to accept the well wishes from over a hundred people in attendance. More socializing in fifteen minutes than I had done in the past five years combined. I'm not a people person.
As that was wrapping up I noticed Steve talking to his son, Stephen. (not a coincidence I don't think.)
I barely noticed, except that Dr. Steve handed Stephen the book and then the younger Stephen nodded his head.
He then took the book and walked over to my father's coffin. Not unusual, everyone was stopping at that shiny gray and chrome box that cost more than my car. (Dad would be furious that mom spent that much on him, that's just the way he was.)
But then Stephen, a decent and upright adult himself, merely a week away from having his second child, slipped the book into the casket, under dad's right arm.
It wasn't the first time I had choked up that week, nor would it be the last. But that purely symbolic gesture, and I mean that since dad was never much of a reader anyhow, that small gesture ripped up a place in me that hadn't been assaulted before.
Immediately the ramifications jumbled in my brain. An image of a distant future archaeologist coming across this strange and silly book inside of a man's gray and chrome coffin. Or the absurd notion of dad in some form of post-death consciousness awakens, is bored and finds reading material right there beside him, how handy!
Of course I knew that neither is remotely likely, but this I did figure. That copy of that little book will probably outlast all the thousands of others printed. A near as is possible permanent archive of the works of a couple of dozen writers just talking about their own dads.
Yeah, it scrambled my gut.
Of course, afterward I addressed the matter to Dr. Steve. "You know, if you just wanted to get rid of that book I could have resold it." I told him.
That's just the way we are.