We are never really ready when the day comes that we have to say goodbye to a loved one and when that loved one is a parent, we really find out how unready we are. The sudden loss of my father last week reminded me of this fact. Dad’s health had been declining for several years and although I had prepared myself for the day he would no longer be with us, I can honestly say I wasn’t ready for it. Dad was a powerful influence in my life and as I delivered the eulogy at his funeral on October 18th, 2015, I wanted more than anything else to reflect on some of the influences he had and celebrate his life. I’ll have more to say about Dad in the coming weeks when I can put my thoughts properly together and reflect on things in a deeper way. Until then, my eulogy to my father, Jim.
I want to first say thank you to everyone who is here today on behalf of my brother Chris and I and our families. This past week has been an emotional one for all of us and the many thoughts, prayers, messages, phone calls, cards and flowers have been very special and meaningful to all of us on so many different levels. I can honestly say that none of us expected to be in the place we are today just a week ago and we appreciate all of you more than we can say.
Second, I want to say that we are not here today to mourn my father’s passing but to celebrate his life, to remember him and to think about the impact he had on each of our lives. No lives were probably more impacted for as long as they were by Dad as were those of his family and while we have shared tears and sadness this week, we have also shared laughter and remembrances of him that I think will long outlast the sadness. That’s the power of laughter, in that it endures long after the sadness has faded and long after the loss becomes less strongly felt. That was a gift my father had that he shared with so many along his journey through life and I think that is what is important to reflect and remember on today.
Dad’s life wasn’t ever an easy one. I grew up hearing the stories of the life of a pastor’s son, of moving from one place to the next every few years, of having to say goodbye to friends made and hello to new people but I think that was part of the reason that Dad found it easy to make new friends and he held on to those friendships and cherished them deeply. Even in the days before social media and the internet, Dad managed to keep in touch with many of his friends he made through the years and some of those friendships took root deeply and flourished through the years.
I have to take responsibility for one thing though…I am the one who set my father up with an account on Facebook and for that I probably owe a few of you an apology because I never thought in a million years that my dad would ever grasp it, much less understand it. My father was one of the most technologically challenged men I have ever known…I mean this is a guy who gave up on television remote controls the moment they grew beyond four buttons. Working a VCR was a skill he never mastered, yet somehow he made the transition from a flip phone to an iPhone with remarkable speed and soon he was on Facebook sharing everything he ran across that had anything to do with dogs, tigers and wild cats, Georgia Bulldogs and pretty much anything Chris, Kimberley, Lara, Kathy or Kim posted to it.
As I looked back this past week over some of his posts, I’m almost surprised some of you didn’t unfriend him because his sense of humor was often shared in the form of some crude joke that was exactly the kind my father found funny. I think in many ways, his mastery of Facebook grew out of need, something my sister-in-law Kimberley has remarked on recently-Dad could surprise you with his capacity to grow and rise to the occasion when he was forced to do so, and she remarked several times over the past weeks how much he had grown as an individual since the passing of his wife Carolyn a year ago this month. I think for him, Facebook became a window in which he could look in on those he cared about at a time when his life was becoming more and more restricted to being close to home and I appreciate all of you that allowed him to be a part of your lives in that way.
Dad was never an easy person to live with but that was quite often tempered with the sense of humor that he had, which he got from his father and which he passed on to me and to Chris. He looked at things just a little bit differently than many people and he often found humor in situations where you wouldn’t expect to find it. I think that trait is common in preachers and sons of preachers who often see and have to deal with things in life that aren’t always pleasant. I found this talent helpful in my early working years as an EMT and while some might find that kind of humor dark, it honestly served a purpose.
My brother and I were the direct beneficiaries of both dad’s humor and his wisdom, sometimes to our mother’s unending frustration. The three of us could get carried away sometimes and more often than not, we didn’t know when to stop. Dad could say something funny, Chris would pick up on it and throw something back and I would interject a different angle and before you knew it the three of us were feeding off each other’s puns and punch lines. There were honestly times where Dad could make us laugh so hard that I would start hyperventilating. Dad was a master in the art of understanding humor and in knowing that while the punchline is important, the timing of how a joke is delivered is essential.
Dad’s wisdom was like that too. As Chris mentioned, he could teach you a lot about life, sometimes when you weren’t expecting and it was sometimes more than you wanted to know. Dad had a number of favorite expressions that have stuck in my mind over the years….and one that could sum up just about anything that might happen, good or bad, was ”Somedays, you’re just going to have that”. That simple expression reminded us that no matter what influence we might try to have on the events of the day, that life was just going to happen and you had to just take it as it came.
More recently, as Dad learned he had the early stages of Leukemia and had to start going for chemo treatments and blood transfusions, he would often just say “it is what it is” and move on. Dad bravely accepted what he had and even after having watched Carolyn suffer for many years with recurring cancers that ultimately led to her death last year, he decided to move forward with treatment because Dad always held out hope that things would improve and that he could beat this.
Another saying that he was fond of was one I think he picked up from his sister Jeane, and that one was “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life” and I think from that, Dad was always trying to remind us that you could always begin anew and fresh, if not necessarily with a change in your life, at least a new attitude towards it. At his essence, Dad was always Dad and while the core of who he was never changed much, he did go through phases of his life that changed him in subtle ways and which made him slightly different from one decade to the next. I felt this more keenly than most I think because I lived to witness his transformation from an oftentimes difficult father to a friend who I could talk with and relate to much better as an adult.
I didn’t see Dad nearly as much after he moved from Jackson to Athens some 16 years ago but we talked on the phone more and in the past couple of years, he would often call me about something he saw on Facebook that Ethan had done, an accomplishment I had made or with worry about Lara’s mother who has also been going through many health issues the past few years. Dad was determined to stay involved in my life and to give me the benefit of his advice, whether asked for or not, because that is just what fathers do.
I think it became harder for me to accept that Dad was growing old much faster than others his age were, because I didn’t see him every week like Chris did and I think a large part of me refused to accept that Dad was living on borrowed time. I came over the day we were to consult with his doctors about his cancer treatments and rode with him over to the treatment center and back. Rather than talk about the cancer or what might lay ahead, Dad instead chose that time to talk about the landscape that passed us by, about the reservoir near his home and how it added to the drive time and other matters. It was a different conversation on the way back though, this time with me driving him while he reflected on a completely different road that lay ahead of him.
He worried about being a burden on his children and his friends, worried about side effects and the costs of treatment and even debated whether or not he wanted to go through with it. Not knowing what to say, I just said “Dad, it is what it is and we just have to deal with it”. He looked out ahead, nodded a moment and just said “yep”. Suddenly, I felt very strange, like I think everyone feels in that first moment that the child becomes the adult and the parent is not the one giving direction in what must be done. Nonetheless, Dad did just that…he dealt with it and with the help of Chris and Kimberley and some local friends, he adjusted to making the best of the situation and moving forward it. We’ll never know if Dad would have beaten it because he never really had the chance to once he contracted pneumonia last weekend. I like to think that he would have though because Dad was not one to give up.
For most of my life, up until the last ten years, my father was the strongest man I had ever known, not just physically strong, but strong-willed and I honestly thought that if anyone could beat the odds, it would be my dad because his will was always so strong. This was a man who took a gunshot to his arm when I was ten years old in an armed robbery at the barbecue place. The gunman was intent on killing Dad and the other man who worked with him and it was only through a stroke of luck that Dad wasn’t mortally wounded. He risked his life, not knowing if the gunman was still around to go and call for help for the other man, who never walked again for the rest of his life. That may have been the scaredest I ever was in my life and the relief I felt later when he finally came home, arm in a sling, was overwhelming. His strength, both physically and in will was two things I admired about Dad growing up, even if my own will was often opposed to his.
I think the last year really took a lot of his will out of him though…the loss of his wife Carolyn last year was a blow that I don’t think his heart ever got over. I think the loss in recent years of so many of his family members took a toll…and two in particular always weighed heavily on him…my Uncle Mack who died when Dad was just 28 years old and the loss of his Cousin Pat, who died when both he and Dad were just 57 years old. Both were like the brothers that my father never had but my cousin Kathy reminded me the other day how glad her Dad and Pat must be now that Dad was with them. That more than anything said in the last week made me smile.
Though he and I were very different in many ways, we also enjoyed some of the same things and though the subjects we mutually enjoyed were few, they were very wide and deep and we could fill hours of conversation talking about them. We both loved cars…in fact, I directly blame Dad and Mom both for an affliction I have always had when it comes to buying cars. I’m 49 years old and I’ve owned 23 cars…..something is definitely wrong with that picture. I couldn’t tell you how many Dad has owned over the years because he actually went through a phase where he was buying and selling used cars, more I think for the thrill of car buying than for actually wanting them.
We never knew what he might come home with…an assortment of cars and pickup trucks over the years filled our driveway…one time he even came home with a school bus, simply because someone had made him a good deal on it. My mother put her foot down about the bus and made him leave it at the barbecue place.
We also shared a love of the Andy Griffith show, my Dad’s all-time favorite TV program and definitely one in my top ten. Dad knew every piece of arcane trivia there was to know about that show and he never failed to call me when TBS was going to run a marathon. I think he would have given up an evening socializing with his friends for an Andy Griffith marathon. He could tell you how much Floyd the Barber charged for a shave, what the secret ingredient in Aunt Bee’s spaghetti was, which front tooth Opie lost first and which guest actor in the show had played multiple parts over the years and what those parts were. More than once, an episode would air that Dad would swear he had never seen before and this always generated a phone call and a conversation about it. Both the show and cars were areas we could find common ground on and I enjoyed those conversations a lot.
The third common ground was on the subject of my son Ethan, and his other grandchildren, Wilson and Charlie. Dad was a proud grandfather and according to what his friends have told me, he was a proud father too, relishing the accomplishments of his children and eagerly awaiting what his grandsons would do next.
He was always proud of Wilson for being his first and of his intelligence and knowledge of computers, making videos and building things on mindcraft. He was proud of Ethan for his athletic prowess and his staggering knowledge and understanding of baseball, basketball and football, as well as his loathing of soccer. Of Charlie, Dad loved the hugs he gave out so willingly, his academic standing in school and his love for telling jokes and humor. Dad found each one of them outstanding and pretty near perfect in his mind.
Of his children, he worried over us both as kids and as adults, celebrated our accomplishments and supported us through bad times. He was far from perfect but he was our Dad and we accepted him as he was. I could go on about Dad, tell stories about him and probably draw a few laughs but today I really wanted to use this time to tell you of the Dad I came to know and through many challenges, the Dad I came to understand and to admire, not just because he worked so very hard to provide a good life for our family.
It was the little things he did that I remember now and think about….taking us to the golf course with him when he would get an occasional day off, bringing us fried egg sandwiches from Cook’s lunchroom on Saturday mornings, not killing me for going out joyriding in his prized 1961 Chevy Impala and getting in a wreck when I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. Sharing his love of Young Harris and the north Georgia mountains, where we will go someday soon to scatter his remains on a mountain there….passing on his wit and his wisdom to his sons and his grandchildren….his love for dogs and cars and most certainly his love for friends…those are the things I will remember about Dad and cherish about him.
Dad called me on Wednesday of last week as Ethan and I were leaving to go to the mountains for a few days. We had made plans for the two of us to stop and have lunch with him in Athens on our way back through last Sunday and he just wanted to make sure we were still coming to Athens. He asked where we were going on our car trip and I mentioned a small town near Highlands NC and he proceeded to tell me about a golfing trip he went on there once with his cousin Virgil, Will Avery Cook and Bob Jackson.
It was a short phone call, just seven minutes long but it would be our last conversation. Had I known that less than a week later, he would be gone, I would have spent a lot more than seven minutes on the phone with him. I would have told him the things that I needed to say to him before he left this earth, things we so rarely think to do.
I say this to remind you and to remind us all that we never know when our time will come and we must always remember to tell those in our lives how important they are and that we love them because they may not be here next week. I had hoped to have my father a lot longer than I did but it wasn’t to be…still, I am comforted knowing that he is with my grandparents, his mother and dad who he adored, as well as my Uncle Mack and Cousin Pat, and all those other family members who have gone on before him. I am happy because I know he is with Carolyn again and that he is whole, restored and healthy.
I truly believe Dad is there because while he was not the most religious man, I know that he had faith and that he was a good man. Flawed, certainly but a good man and one of good character. I hope that I will always carry within me the love he had for me and that in some way, I will continue to make him proud and if I or Chris ever need reminding of that, all we have to do is look at those three boys, our sons, that he was so proud of.
Let me close by saying again, thank you all for being my Dad’s friends, for being a part of his life and letting him be a part of yours. Dad was happiest around other people and I’m glad that he was able to find happiness in so many different ways during his 69 years of life. I’ll see Dad again someday…of that I am convinced.