So, the first memory of my father goes something like this: I’m probably four years old, we’re living in a trailer park, and I’m on the floor of our living room with Dad and we’re watching “Star Trek” — the old one.
It’s on our big Zenith TV and at four years old, this show is larger than life. If you remember the old “Star Trek,” you’ll remember that during the credits, the Enterprise used to hurtle toward the screen between “Starring William Shatner” and “Leonard Nimoy” and such. Well, every time the Enterprise came at us, my dad would hug me and pull me in the opposite direction, going “WHOA!” and “Here it comes!” and “Look out!”
Even then, knowing that it was just a TV show, I could feel that my dad was keeping me out harm’s way, keeping me safe.
I haven’t written a eulogy before.
It’s my first and I hope my last — even though I’m sure it won’t be.
I’ve written books, articles, essays, academic pieces, corporate presentations, and several best man speeches. I’ve been published in magazines and journals. I’ve had pieces published on everything from addiction recovery to James Bond movies. (Both equally important subjects.)
Not bragging. I’m just providing you context so you know that this is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.
Truth be told, I’ve been writing this in my head for a year. And I think I speak for my family when I say that we’ve been mourning the loss of Dad for many months before he actually passed away last Thursday.
Over the past few days, we’ve been flooded with stories about Dad. The more I learn about him, the more I love him — and I never thought that was possible. He’s been called everything from a “gentle giant” to “a brilliant man” to “my everything.” One time, my college roommate Crow saw Dad without his shirt on. Dad was chopping wood in the backyard or something. All muscle. Crow immediately insisted on calling him “The Boss.”
For everyone here, Dad meant something to you.
He was a husband, a father, a brother, a grandfather, a cousin, a colleague, an uncle, a son, a grandson, a mentor, a trusted advisor…
and again… to my roommate Crow, “The Boss.”
Dad was also a thinker, a self-taught engineer, a philosopher, a reader, an entrepreneur, a lover of music, magic tricks and mysteries of the universe.
If you’re anything like me, you ‘bookmark’ moments in your life as they’re happening. I did this a thousand times with my dad. I remember his silhouette against the night sky as we’d be looking at stars in a freezing February as much as I remember him pointing out the Milky Way on a beach in August.
He fixed everything I broke — both figuratively and literally. He was a genius. His mind was always going. But most of all, he always wanted to help people.
More than anything, he was a builder. Not only of things, but of people’s livelihoods, of confidences, and of love.
When I was five, he built me rocket ships out of these giant appliance boxes. When I was six, he designed a “laser tag” field in our first house out of flashlights and mirrors and light sensors that’d make sounds. He even built me a pair of stilts for Christmas. When I seven, he built me a working flip communicator out of metal with working buttons, lights and sounds.
I’m way different than my father. I don’t have the discipline to read instruction manuals nor the patience to follow step-by-step directions. I’m more of the devil-may-care sort, hoping that things snap together easily or that you can just plug the computer in and it works. I’m not wired for anything more than convenience. I don’t care how things work; I don’t pretend to understand the nuances and principles that keep life afloat, like air flow over aircraft wings.
Dad was a methodical, patient man — the sort of person who calculates, measures and makes careful cuts. I don’t necessarily wish I was like that, but he put things together — model airplanes, home PCs, water heaters — whereas I’m designed to take things apart. There was sincerely nothing my father didn’t know about: history, thermodynamics, politics, religion, physics, the mechanical inner workings of an automotive turn signal. He knew everything. This may seem like a lazy lie, but it’s true.
So I’ve approached this eulogy the way he would: taking my time, working on it, practicing it. I’m not saying I’m doing a good job here — I’m just saying I’m trying to do 9% of the job my father would at something like this.
My dad wrote me a letter when I turned 18. This letter has traveled with me everywhere I’ve moved, across several state lines and my wife will attest to the fact that it’s been taken care of better than any of my James Bond hardcovers. I’ve treated it with care. It’s the most important document I’ve ever received. Let me share one thing he wrote in that letter:
“I have always remembered a saying at about your age: “The only thing that stands between a boy and eternity is his father.” I’ve thought of this quote many times throughout my life and hopefully it’ll explain some of the enigmatic actions of your father. Don’t worry, Paul, I’ve experienced the same feelings toward my father as you, no doubt, have experienced toward me. They range from ‘My dad’s an alright guy!” to “I know there’s a Hell because the Devil is in my living room.””
I’m not sharing everything he wrote me because it’s deeply personal and to me, it’s the same thing as Dad revealing the secrets to his magic tricks: you just don’t do it. But I will share that Dad took me to science fairs and spelling bees and everything in between. You know, all the things geeky kids like me were into.
But here’s one quick story probably tops them all. My parents took Laura and I to Las Vegas a lot. I mean, like, a lot. We couldn’t gamble so it wasn’t a ton of fun for us. But one year, Dad kind of anticipated this. He knew I was into “The X-Files” and conspiracy theories and aliens and sci-fi, so when we flew out to Las Vegas when I was 19 or so, he rented a car for the two of us and announced that he was taking me to Area 51. Like, the actual Area 51. The one a few hours outside Vegas in the middle of nowhere. Before GPS and stuff, he’d determined where Groom Lake was and the facility and such and … we drove for hours. Lots of it in silence, but still.
Finally, we got to this road and we headed down it, leaving this long trail of dust and dirt behind us. Two black Suburbans, like magic, appeared as we got close to a sign that said (I kid you not) in giant lettering: “WARNING. Restricted area. Photography of this area is prohibited. Use of deadly force authorized.”
There were definitely weapons trained on us.
So, of course, I was taking photos of everything I could see.
I wasn’t afraid. Even with those certainly armed guards staring at us, Dad asked me: “Did you get enough photos?” and “Are you sure? We can stay here.” My dad was right there next to me. I was convinced (and still am) that if anything happened — terrestrial or extraterrestrial — Dad could handle it. That feeling carried with me all through my life and he never once disappointed. When I was at a really dark, despondent point in my life, Dad came down to take care of me. When I was 2,000 miles away in Arizona and decided I needed to come home, he was literally on the next flight out to drive me back in a U-Haul.
Dad’s decline was as long as it was shockingly swift.
Mom lived with it second by second
Laura, day by day
Me, week by week
Some of you, years
To see someone that strong and intelligent whittled down by illness was hard to watch, yes, but it doesn’t diminish my memories. Someone like my father is impossible to forget. We’re talking about someone who once, on vacation in North Carolina, pretended to be someone who only spoke German to the pizza delivery guy and eventually gave the kid a $20 tip after confusing the hell out of him.
My father isn’t here anymore.
But I still feel like I’m that kid on the floor of our trailer watching “Star Trek.” Dad is still, in my mind, beside me — hugging me and pulling me out of harm’s way — no matter if it’s a fake TV starship or whatever problem Life decides to throw at me.
I’ll leave you with one last thing. I genuinely don’t think Dad knew he was special or unique. He certainly never wanted to be aggrandized or made to seem more than he was.
As he told me, my mother and sister a zillion times: “I’m just a man.”
That’s how he wanted to be remembered: “I’m just a man.”
While I appreciate that, I think I speak for everyone here that he was much more than just a man. He was the smartest, most caring, loving and genuine man I’ve ever known.
As long as we all remember him, my father — occasionally known as “The Boss” — will never be gone.