Remembering My Father

Photos of Ron-4My father died on January 8, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 76. The following eulogy was delivered on January 13, 2014 . . .

It seems fitting to begin simply by acknowledging what we all know: We have lost a remarkable man. Ron was a faithful husband, a dutiful father, a loyal friend, a successful business man, and — who could forget? — an avid lover of college football, ocean fishing, and classic cars. Isn’t it true that those loves provided the context or the platform for nearly all of his relationships? Roll that trifecta together with a seemingly bottomless well of off-color jokes and mischievous humor, fueled by beer and beef (because, in his words “a meal without meat is just a snack”), and you’ve got yourself a man’s man. He was somebody you wanted to be around because he embraced the joys of life—but never without a sense of responsibility.

Ron was, for all intents and purposes, “a self-made man.” As an adolescent, I remember thinking that he seemed almost iconic in that regard. Other people talked about the American dream in an abstract way, but my own father embodied it, bringing himself up as he did by his own effort and wits from a dirt-poor kid in Alberta (shabby baby shoes have been produced as evidence) to a college graduate (the first in his family) and a successful entrepreneur, who never seemed to lose his “common touch.”

Never sensible to the fineries of language, he nevertheless professed that his favorite poem was Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” which had been force-fed to him in college as a fraternity pledge and seemed to resonate throughout his life as a kind of credo:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

How many of you heard him recite that last sentence after he had had too many beers? He certainly filled “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” even to the bitter end.

Further confusing my adolescent impressions, he even looked like the other Ronnie who gave voice to American ideals at the time—Ronald Reagan.

Somehow, even in his success, he managed to be proud of his accomplishment without ever becoming entitled. He enjoyed making things or fixing things with his hands, through his sweat. He never put himself above doing—and doing something well. Even in this, he seems to have been an exemplar. In the ’80s, Warren and Bivian Marr bestowed on him the title “Doctor Brown” for his comprehensive pool services. At work, he was never contented to sit aloof in his office, but would rather be out on the factory floor, working side by side with his employees with his hands in a machine or a blow mold, facing the same hazards that they did.

Even after he retired, we remember his great industriousness—from maintaining his boat or cars to fixing anything that needed fixing around the house—and even a few things that didn’t. Who can forget those palm-sweating instances where Ron teetered perilously at the top of a ladder, trying to clean out the gutters or paint some hidden spot, even when the activity exceeded his declining ability? So many close calls, so little time.

Increasingly over the past few years, it was hard for Ron to admit his limitations and let go of his desire to be useful and productive. At one point while puttering around during renovations to our back deck, one carpenter half-kiddingly required Ron to have a note from Marilyn and be duct-taped to the ladder.

I think it’s easy to idolize or idealize Ron’s life because he was also lucky—or, depending on your worldview, you might even say blessed:

• He fell into plastics before plastics was cool. Remember, Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate said that plastics was the hot field, but that was released in 1969. Ron had already been in it for eight years.

• He made most of his closest and lifelong friends in high school. Many of you are here with us today.

• He adopted two children who, by every indication, were meant to be a part of the fabric of his family life, and he would even welcome a third son in time, whose appearance was all the more joyous because it was thought improbable.

• Over the past five years, Ron embarrassed nearly every medical assessment and outlived every prognosis. Even in the most recent go-around, when he was initially put into hospice, he was only expected to live for a few weeks. But somehow he managed to rally and remain with us for another five months, giving many of you a chance to visit with him extensively before the end.

• And, perhaps most impressively, he married a woman who — he could not have known at the age of 25 — would love and serve him beyond anyone’s expectations, dwarfing our own boutique ideas of what it means to be a loving, patient, and faithful spouse.

While Ron embodied something exceptional and rare, he was never self-conscious of any of it. I don’t think he ever took his blessings for granted. He was unassuming and unpretentious and avoided many of the trappings of the nouveau riche. And while he enjoyed the things that new-found money could buy (things his own father could never have hoped for), they were not merely ends in themselves. Each of his so-called toys — the Cortez motorhome, the Chilipepper, the ever-larger TV screens, the ’57 Chevy — provided the contexts, the occasions, for so many good memories, lively but leisurely conversations, and new adventures. You might even say each was in its way an act of service to others.

As you know, he wasn’t what you’d call a spiritual or religious man for the better part of his life. For a time, his line was that there must be nothing after death, because he saw nothing — no special revelation, no white light to guide him — when his heart stopped for 30 seconds at a critical moment in his battle against spinal meningitis when he was 35.

That brush with death, though, taught him about the fragility and contingency of life. And I suspect that it cured him of the so-called young man’s disease—of invincibility and solipsism. It made him mindful of what really matters in life. I think we can see that reflected in the way he would embrace life’s many pleasures. That crisis seeded in him (and in Marilyn) a gift, a shift in perspective, that many of us sidestep or avoid until our characters are set, cemented in the distractions of a happy life.

His other line on God—or maybe he meant the Bible—was that, on a trip to Rome in 1975, he had seen so many artifacts, so many pieces of history, so many cultural and material riches of the Catholic church, that it “was almost enough to believe” — but not quite. The experience left an impression on him, but it wasn’t yet personal.

I am not exactly sure what he made of me, when I began in 1985 to embrace faith in Christ as something both compelling and transformative. What I do know is that, in his own way, he tried to reach out. One day he came home with a vinyl record. It was a single of the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day.” Of course, being a teenager, I was dismissive at first. What was this, some kind of a peace offering? (Oh, the teenage brain, what a piece of work it is.)

Only later would I come to appreciate that the song had become an international hit in 1969, the year of my birth. And, while Ron may not have known or appreciated its origins, the song was an adaptation of an 18th-century hymn written by Philip Doddridge. It’s sentiments are as fine and lovely as any I know:

O happy day, that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Savior and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.

Happy day, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray, and live rejoicing every day
Happy day, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away.

What I have come to realize just now is that the song’s utter exuberance reflected something essential about my father and his approach to life. Through it, he offered me a point of connection between my nascent faith and his love of music — and perhaps even a connection between my birth and his happiness. How I wish I had appreciated that sooner.

Much later, in 1997, the unthinkable happened. My brother, then 26 years old, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer in his left pelvis. Some of you know that, shortly thereafter, Ron abruptly gave up alcohol, going cold turkey. I didn’t question the move; I welcomed it. But, two years later, on the day that Cameron died, he confessed us that he had, in fact, bartered with God, that “if he gave up the hardest thing he could think of, God would save Cameron’s life.” The hardest thing for him to give up was alcohol.

Setting aside the right or wrongness of the theology, the barter marked a turning point. It was, in every sense, the beginning of a deeply personal conversation between Ron and God about ultimate things, about life and death. And it was a conversation that had been going on for more than two years before anybody else knew about it.

In the wake of that loss, he did not abandon hope that he would see Cameron again — that their relationship would one day be restored. Several years later, after I had moved to Washington, DC, the three of us visited the National Cathedral. Inside, the 10,000-pipe organ was playing, and a choir singing, so we all sat down in a pew toward the back and took in the majestic surroundings. At some point, Ron broke off from us and went outside, where we found him head down and tearful. Without looking up, he handed me a laminated yellow card, framed with a weave of decorative red roses. On it was the text of a poem. No author, no date. He said, “It was Cameron’s.”

“Safely Home”

I am home in Heaven, dear ones;
Oh so happy and so bright!
There is perfect joy and beauty
In this everlasting light.

All the pain and grief is over,
Every restless tossing passed;
I am now at peace forever,
Safely home in Heaven at last.

Did you wonder I so calmly
Trod the valley of the shade?
Oh, but Jesus’ love illumined
Every dark and fearful glade.

And He came Himself to meet me
In that way so hard to tread;
And with Jesus’ arm to lean on,
Could I have one doubt or dread?

Then you must not grieve so sorely,
For I love you dearly still,
Try to look beyond earth’s shadows,
Pray to trust our Father’s will.

There is work still waiting for you,
So you must not idly stand;
Do it now, while life remains,
You shall rest in Jesus’ land.

When that work is all completed,
He will gently call you Home;
Oh, the rapture of that meeting,
Oh, the joy to see you come!

Apparently, after Cameron died, he slid this poem into his own wallet and read it countless times over the years. It was a consolation and perhaps even a new credo, if one that he was reluctant to discuss. He even said at the time, “I am a very private person.” Indeed he was. His hope in that reunion — unwittingly coinciding with that powerful image of heaven that Jesus offered; the image of a banquet — was something he kept close to his heart.

This image, to his dying day, buoyed Ron. And I hope that this service will buoy each of you as we head back out into the world. If I leave you with anything, it is this: Make something useful of your grief. Take this opportunity — don’t miss this opportunity — to set your life aright.

Several of you were here with us in this very building to remember my brother Cameron. His death was, as I have recounted many times to my friends, “a stick of dynamite” in my life, breaking apart things I had assumed were settled. In the wake of that event, I made a series of conscious, if gradual, decisions to put the pieces of my life back together very differently, to surrender myself to a moral and spiritual order not of my own design.

I’d like to suggest to you today that Ron’s death may hold the seed of something similar for you. Is there brokenness in your life that you’d like to confess and be made whole? Do you need to ask a spouse or a friend for forgiveness? Do you need to tell somebody that you love them? Do you need to surrender a habit, an attitude, or an addiction in your life that has possessed you or weighed you down?

Do it now, before the press of life turns your attention elsewhere. Today can mark that pivot, that moment of transition or transformation, but it begins with a recognition of need and a conscious decision to embrace a better way.

I take comfort in what I know to be true: God’s love is real and personal, and it’s offered as an undeserved gift. If you accept it, it can inspire and govern your life in the way it cradled and comforted Ron’s at the very end. We who remain have the opportunity while we still live to set our hearts aright so that we may be reunited with Christ — and perhaps even Cameron and Ron — in that great banquet waiting for us in heaven.

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