My dad passed away last week, and I can’t quite believe I’m typing those words.
It’s not that I thought my dad would live forever, any more than I think I’ll live forever; it’s just that his death seemed like an abstraction, much like my own death. It’s out there in the distant future, you’re vaguely aware of its possibility, but you don’t think that it will ever, really, finally happen, until last week when it did.
My dad was 88 years old when he died, a good, long life by any standard. He had been married to my mom for more than 66 years. I thought they would easily make it to 70 and beyond. He worked for the same company for more than 40 years. In fact, he worked there so long that eventually he owned the place. He was chairman of the board when he retired, having done every conceivable job along the way.
Everything my dad did – and this was true, I realize, for many men of his generation – he did it with the idea that it was the right thing to do and that he would keep doing it no matter what, until he couldn’t do it anymore.
In fact, that’s the earliest memory I have of my dad – namely, that he was strong. He would give me piggy-back rides around the house, crawling on his hands and knees, and somehow I knew even then that he would be the strongest man I would ever know.
I was surprised one day when I suddenly found myself a couple of inches taller than he was, but that sudden growth never gave me much of a competitive advantage. He still regularly beat me at racquetball, pool, cards, golf, pretty much anything that we did together.
I sometimes wondered where he learned to shoot pool so well, but thought it better not to ask him. “In the service” would have been his reply. He apparently learned a great deal “in the service.”
Not only was my dad strong, he was also something of a perfectionist.
Some of that perfectionism, I realize, has rubbed off on me, so I know it’s not always a good thing, but it can often produce some outstanding work. My dad was a painter, for example, but not just any old, toss-off-a-few-canvasses-in-retirement sort of painter. He took on the most formidable kind of painting there is – watercolor – and in relatively short order he managed to achieve signature membership in the American Watercolor Society, the best of the best.
And he didn’t choose just any style of watercolor painting, but the kind that forbids the use of white paint, a technique that is sometimes called “transparent watercolor.” He painted with a dry brush and razor blade too, and so his paintings – and he produced a few hundred of them in the last 25-30 years of his life – are ultra-realistic.
Not many people can produce a painting so realistic that you’d swear it was a photograph, but try doing it sometime using watercolor. I wish you the best.
I thought of this – and more – on Monday afternoon when I was driving behind the funeral director on the way to the cemetery. In Michigan winters, the words of committal – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – are often spoken at the church or the funeral home, rather than at the cemetery, and so the burial itself is typically private.
I went anyway, following closely behind the hearse with my car, mostly so that I could reassure my mom that everything had happened properly and with dignity, and so I stood alone in the cold and snow as the cemetery workers lowered my dad’s casket into the ground.
If I had been seeking finality, I would certainly have found it in that moment. But I found something else, something better. In standing there by myself, as tall and straight as I could, shoulders back and head high, I gave my dad what he had always demonstrated for me – strength and always doing my best, no matter what the circumstances.