Today marks the first anniversary of my father’s death. As a tribute to him, I am posting the eulogy I wrote for his funeral (with a few words tweaked). What is so wonderful about today is that what I wrote then — about not having any unfinished business — has held true, and for that I am eternally grateful, for it means today I am not burdened by the anniversary of his death. I can think of my father with a smile, and while, yes, there is a touch of sadness, it is the sadness of knowing that I will never be able to talk to him again in this life, not the sadness of unspoken words and the regret they spawn. Love you, Dad.
The purpose of a eulogy is to pay tribute to the deceased and to reveal who they were. I know, therefore, that I am expected to tell you how our father had been born and raised on a farm in Legal and had wanted to become a rancher; how he was an avid hockey fan but that the game he loved to watch and play would lead to personal tragedy, to the loss of his arm; how he was a brother to six siblings, a father of six children, and a husband of 57 years; that in his retirement he and our mother travelled across Canada and the United States in a van our father customized; and that after they had satisfied their wanderlust he became a volunteer driver for the Cancer Institute, helping others whose pain and struggles he knew intimately and for whom he served as an example of the successful cancer survivor. I know that I am expected to regale you with funny or poignant memories of him, but as those who have attended our parents’ milestone parties know, we’ve done all that. What I really want to do here today is to reveal who our father was at his essence and, somewhat paradoxically, I want to do so by telling you a bit about what our father was not.
Our father was not racist. I remember back in the late seventies, perhaps early eighties, when my sister Suzanne brought a black girlfriend home from school; this was at a time when there were very, very few African-Canadians in Edmonton. I recall our father’s look of discomfort when he met the young woman, but I immediately sensed it was a discomfort not born of prejudice but simply inexperience. And whatever discomfort he felt he kept to himself, and my sister’s friend was invited to eat at our table.
Our father was not a zealot. His Catholic faith was integral to his life and his identity, but he never imposed his faith on others nor denigrated alternate beliefs. And although all of us children drifted away from the church of our childhood, our father never denied our individual beliefs, and we were always still invited to eat at his table.
Our father was not homophobic. When my eldest brother Allain invited his university buddy Ron to the house, I recall how we children were told in advance that Ron was gay. We were told this not in the stern tone of disapproval and judgment, but rather it were merely intimated that it would be proper and appreciated if we did not say anything unkind or disrespectful, in much the same way that our father should have warned me before I launched into an impassioned critique of the Reagan administration that our visiting great-aunt Edna was a staunch Republican. Once again, however, no prejudice was ever exercised, and both Ron and our great-aunt Edna were invited to eat at our table, though never at the same time.
Our father was not a coward. Life threw our dad one curveball after another — illness, disability, discrimination, poverty, tragedy and loss — but he didn’t give up. Our father understood instinctively that when Fate robs you of the life you should have lived, you can still choose to live the life you have been given. He stood tall in the face of adversity, and his only revenge against those who had wronged him was success. Perhaps not success on a grand scale but certainly on a relative one: while the obstacles he encountered would have felled a lesser man, our dad kept chipping away at the gates until he broke through and secured his rightful place in the community.
Our father was not lazy. He worked hard to provide for his family, and he rarely stopped just because it was the weekend. Instead he would be found in his workshop building something for the house, or perhaps repairing a toy, or changing the oil in the car. What little leisure time he had he rarely kept selfishly for himself; instead he taught his children to skate, to ride a bike, to throw a ball, to cut and nail a piece of wood, to play a game of crib or Scrabble. And whatever our dad did he strove to do it well, to do it right, even if it meant doing it over and over again.
Our father was not perfect. His journey was a struggle to become the man, and the father, that he wanted to be. But we had the profound privilege of watching our father change when he discovered to his shame and dismay that what he had learned about parenting and marriage from his own father was not appropriate for the next generation; that what our father had been taught was preventing his relationships from developing in the way that he had hoped, that he had imagined, when he first married and became a father himself. We had the profound privilege of watching our father’s transformation from a man who dictated to one who became more thoughtful and measured in his responses, who listened to his children’s opinions and, if you were able to present him with a solid argument for a contrary position, would often nod his head and say, “Hmm, you have a point.” We had the profound privilege of receiving an apology for past errors, which allowed each of us to build a meaningful relationship with him as adults. And while I cannot speak for my siblings, I can say for myself that he left me with one of the greatest gifts any departing parent can bestow: no unfinished business. I have been left with no anger, no pain, no bitterness, no resentments . . . well, except for the small matter of him not teaching me French.
I really cannot emphasize enough just how extraordinary was our father’s journey. One has to consider that his was not a generation inclined to introspection or weekend personal development seminars; he had to do the work alone. We all know how stressful it is to be challenged, how disorientating it is to have your assumptions dissected and found to be wanting, how frightening it is to risk emotional exposure. Our father had to choose between autocracy and authenticity, and to his credit he chose the latter. It didn’t happen overnight, and he didn’t always succeed, but he tried. He changed. That was, in my opinion, the greatest act of love and courage that he committed. I would implore everyone here today, that if you have unfinished business with a loved one, follow our father’s example and take that first step. Death closes a door; it robs your survivors of hope, it robs them of closure. Reach out and talk to them before it’s too late.
So why have I chosen to tell you what our father was not instead of what he was? Because when we think about parenting we usually think of it in the proactive sense, of instructions and lectures and lessons learned. But what a parent does not do is often more important. Children learn what their parents live; children learn more by observation, by osmosis, than by direct deposit. I can say with conviction that I am not racist, zealous, homophobic, cowardly, lazy, or narcissistic, due in no small part because of our father’s example. And I can say with all honesty I am at peace with him, and I pray he is at peace with himself.
The role of a good parent is to build the moral foundation of a child’s life. And while children eventually grow up to think for themselves, while they may adopt new values of their own or bend their parents’ values to their will, and some children may even burn their whole moral house down, the foundation remains and can be built upon again. Our father built for us a solid foundation. For that he can be proud, and will be missed.