Dad, A Eulogy
I was born with a broken smile, and Dad dedicated himself to helping me mend it. On his own, he brought me, at one week old, to my first surgical repair, driving me to the Cities, caring for me overnight, and bringing me to the hospital. He liked to joke that when he was checking in, he thought about leaving me there. But then he looked down at me and found me peering up at him, and he said, “You and me, kid.”
He could’ve wrapped me in cotton wool against a cruel world, could’ve lowered his expectations for me because of the hand I was dealt. Many would have called him kind. But he didn’t do that because he knew that wasn’t kindness. Instead, he set the bar high, then set out to fortify me for the storms ahead. He saw me keeping my head down, hiding from the stares at my scars, so he began introducing me to as many people as he could, gently urging me to keep my chin up, look people in the eye, and smile.
You see, Dad had an extraordinary ability of knowing when a gentle lesson was needed and what the right one was. Chris tells a story of when he was preparing for the state championship football game. Dad was a winning football player and coach. He could’ve watched film, discussed plays, gave pep talks. He did none of those. Instead, when he dropped Chris off for the game, he said two words: “Have fun.” Dad knew in that moment the crucial lesson wasn’t about winning. Chris was a talented quarterback. He already knew how to win. The lesson of remembering to have fun was infinitely more important. I love that story because that is quintessential Dad.
As for me, Dad taught me many lessons. Among them that people are essentially decent and deserve our good faith. That obstacles will inevitably litter my path, but never, ever let the obstacle be me. He taught me to think critically and love charitably and never, ever to confuse them. But one of his most important lessons occurred one high school summer. He got me a job working the shutdown at the Red Wing Shoe Co. That’s when the factories are shut down and get cleaned from top to bottom. The day starts early, the hours are long, and the work is dirty. I went that first day ready enough, but when I came home fatigued and filthy, I stopped in the doorway of his home office, and he burst out laughing.
“You’re laughing at me?” I asked, indignant.
“Yes,” he said while he continued to laugh.
When he finally stopped laughing, I crawled into his lap: “He said I was late,” I began, “but I know I wasn’t. Then he put me in a crew with all boys when there were all these crews of girls. The boys have to do the hardest, heaviest, grossest stuff.”
“You’ve got three older brothers, you can’t keep up with the boys?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Yeah, you can,” he said.
“Then he made me scrape year-old tobacco spit off a wall,” I continued. “The worst job in the whole shutdown, and he gave it to me.”
I could feel Dad’s torso shaking in his laughter.
Eventually, he said, “Those people work hard all year and have two weeks of vacation. They deserve to come back to a clean factory.” And: “You know how to work, but you don’t like to get your hands dirty. Now you’ll get your hands dirty.”
In the days that followed, he taught me about working with your hands and working with your mind and that both are equally important. In this way, he bound me and the opportunities I had to the hard-working hands of others and gave me a deep lesson in humility and gratitude.
And on the final day, I learned an important lesson about Dad. At lunch, my crew manager sat down and said, “I know who your Dad is.”
I smiled and nodded.
“He asked me to put you on this crew,” he continued, “and give you the hardest work.”
“That sounds like him,” I said.
“I was happy to do it,” he said, “because I would do anything for your Dad. He saved my life.”
Then he proceeded to tell me how Dad found him grappling with addiction, inspired him to get sober, and if he did, Dad would give him a job.
That was Dad, too. He stood beside us in the valleys of our lives, believed in us when most would not. And when someone believes in you like that, you might devote yourself to living up to that awesome belief. Humbly, I think the proof of the profound importance of believing in people sits right in these pews.
When I became an adult, I went to Dad and asked him what kind of relationship we should have. He said his dad was his hero and hoped he would be the same for me.
In my forthright fashion, I asked, “What word do you think of after hero? Worship,” I supplied. “I don’t want to worship my own dad. I want to know you.”
No one should have to suffer what Dad suffered, and for a daughter who adored him, it was a decades-long heartbreak. But after that conversation, he taught me the greatest lesson of all—he showed me he was human. Poor Dad, I asked all the questions: “What were your boyhood dreams?” “What does it feel like?” “Are you afraid?” I wanted to collect every ounce of his beautiful soul like rain for the dry days to come. And in rare moments, he spoke the truth and shared his frustrations and fears.
In that last awful week, in those early, confusing days of the pandemic, nothing was right or comforting. After thirty-one years of suffering with him and loving him, we deserved a better goodbye. But Dad, in his typical way, gave himself up to God on his own terms. And to me he gave a parting gift. When his soul slipped from this earth, I woke from a sound sleep with a broken heart.
“You and me, kid,” he said one last time.
“You and me, Dad. I’ll love you always.”