Eulogy for Father
Length: 1411 words (4 double-spaced pages)
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I stand before you today to pay my last respects, and to say my final goodbyes, to my father Harry.
I have to admit at the outset that it is very difficult to do this. The difficulty is not just due to the obvious causes -- the sadness, the grief, and the sense of loss. Nor is it due to the confrontation with death in its utter finality, and the resulting fear regarding one's own mortality.
No, this is difficult for me primarily because of all of the unfinished business that I have with my father. And while a part of me continues to nurture the hope that, had he lived longer, I would have been able to finish my business, I have to acknowledge that this is not true.
Because, the fact is, it is very hard for sons to ever attain a really clear perspective on their own fathers.
I know this to be true from my 20 years of experience as a psychologist whose central interest has been fatherhood.
In the Fatherhood Course that I teach, this issue of son-father business usually comes up in the first class. We might be talking about why the men decided to enroll in the course, and after a few guys give the standard reasons, and others make some quips, the mood palpably shifts to serious as one father speaks, lower lip quivering: "You want to know why I am here? I'll tell you why I am here. I am here so that my little son Timmy will not feel as bad about me when he's grown up as I do about my own dad." The man's words hit the room like a hurricane, and soon the theme of father son business is on every man's lips. The fathers then become sons and talk about the grief, pain and bitterness they feel toward their own fathers.
Let's go into the classroom now, so that you can hear these men's voices:
"I never know what my father thought. He just would never talk about himself."
"I know he loved us because he was a good provider. He worked two jobs in order to put all five of us though parochial school and several of us though college. But I never knew if he liked me."
"To this day I wonder what he really thinks of me. Is he proud of me?"
"Every time I call home, Dad answers the phone, and it usually goes like this: `Hi.
How are you? How's Liz? How are the kids? Everything ok at work? Here's mom.'"
"When my father was dying I took care of him. I did some pretty intimate things, like shave him. One night I bent over to kiss him on the forehead and he put up his feeble, shaky arm to push me away: `No son, men don't do that,' he said."
I also know how hard sons struggle with their relationships with their fathers from my own life, of course. As a son I have tried over a long period of time to transcend the intergenerational hierarchical boundary that defines the father as a father and the son as a son, in order to meet my father on a plane where we are both adults.
I worked for many years to reduce my own emotional reactivity to my father. I discovered a way to measure my progress: I would see how long it would take after I crossed the threshold into the family home for me to regress to the surly adolescent I once was. I worked on this for years and made modest progress.
During this time I learned that progress in this kind of work can be facilitated by a ritual event, the kind that signifies the maturity of the son. Well, I wondered what sort of event that would have to be for me, because it certainly didn't happen at my Bar Mitzvah (the Jewish boy's rite of passage), nor did it happen when I left home to go to college, nor when I married, nor when I became a father myself, nor when I earned my doctoral degree!
I had just about given up on ritual events until the wedding of my daughter Caren almost 10 years ago. That did it. My father and I seemed to relate a bit more easily from that point onward. And, as a dramatic punctuation to this transformation, my brother Lowell got into an argument with my father during the rehearsal dinner, an argument very similar to those that I used to find myself in.
Why is the son-father relationship so difficult? Being a son I can't quite shake the feeling that I am not really qualified to say, but I think it starts out with a series of miscommunications:
* Sons, banished from the comfort of a close relationship with their mothers at an uncomfortably early age lest they develop into sissies or mama's boys, look to their dads for some of that lost nurturance.
* Fathers feel a tremendous obligation to make their sons into men, in the classical/traditional sense of stoic, aggressive, self-reliant, stay-calm-in-the-face-of-danger manhood. As a result they feel that it is their job to wean their sons of their neediness, and to put a hard shell around their child's vulnerable emotions (such as fear, sadness, hurt and loneliness).
* Males as a rule are not particularly good at sensing other people's emotions nor in expressing their own, so the miscues that begin in early childhood get compounded over the years. Only rarely do they get resolved.
So where am I in all of this? Obviously I find it easier to talk about other people and things in general than to talk about myself as a son in relationship to my own father. And of course this reflects the fact that I do have unfinished business with him.
And just what is this business?
* First of all there is a deep yearning for a close relationship with him. I loved him and wanted to know that he loved me. It took years of work to get beyond the anger so that I could admit that to myself.
* Then there are a lot of son questions:
- What was it like for him to be my dad, especially during the early years when he was stationed in the Pacific during WWII and saw me only rarely? What did he think about during those long absences?
- What did he feel when he learned that, as a two year old living with my mother and maternal grandparents, I would open the shirt of any man who came to the house to check and see if he had enough chest hair to be dad?
- What was his reaction when at the age of four I packed my pockets with snow upon leaving Minnesota to reunite with him in California because I thought he would really like snow.
- Why was he always so tense and unhappy in that house on Ledgewood Road?
- Why was he so disapproving and angry at me?
Earlier this morning as I viewed my father's body at the mortuary, I pondered what I was going to do with all of this unfinished business, and I came to the following conclusions:
* He was a good provider and a responsible contributing member of the community. From working long hours as a printer, to owning his own printing shop, to working for others as an estimator, to his non-retired retirement of working for SCORE and being actively involved in the American Legion and the VFW, he gave it his all.
* Despite the outward argumentativeness, he and my mother Wilma were as close as two people can ever be, and I feel blessed that I was able to celebrate their Golden Anniversary two years ago.
* He had some spectacular talents. He could perform a long series of arithmetical operations with six and seven digit numbers entirely in his head.
* He had some severe limitations, some resulting from his own childhood, others from WWII. It is sad that he was so self-sufficient that he could never avail himself of help.
* He fully lived up to his standards, which were the standards of his generation, a generation unlike my own whose world view was shaped by the severe hardship of the Great Depression and the near calamity of WWII.
* He did the best he could with what he had.
I LOVE YOU
I'LL MISS YOU