I’ve had multiple requests for the eulogy I gave for my Dad’s service yesterday. For those who could not attend, I’ll publish it here. Thank you to all who called, texted, emailed, shot a fist in the air to give me strength, showed up, thought of us, smiled with pride, wept for our loss and your own. You all rock. To the CFD, there aren’t words. We love you.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Written 11/5/18 / by Shannon Butler
e.e. cummings said – The most wasted of all days is the one without laughter
When my mother asked me to write my father’s eulogy, I spent the better part of two weeks staring blankly at my computer with nothing to show for it other than a really thorough virus scan. It’s impossible to sum up the lifetime of such a complex
and beloved man in only a few words. He was a mystery to many, including at times, those of us who knew him best. His intellect allowed him to move from mode and topic with a fluidity that defied definition. You simply had to see it to believe it.
So how do you explain a man like my father? He was so many things. He could be the voice of reason, the quiet one, the enabler of a midnight poker game, the avid reader, the undisputed king of one liners, the Jeopardy ace, the political sage who could quote
legal precedents to make a point; sometimes for the hell of it. He could tell you in one breath, the dirtiest limerick ever recorded in human history to debating with the next breath whether Stonewall Jackson was the most pious man alive during the Civil War or
a religious zealot hell bent on destruction. He had the self-possession to keep a practical joke going for weeks, months if need be. It may have been a hobby to him or maybe he just felt that he was his own best form of entertainment. He had half of the Chatham
Fire Department convinced that he and my mother had separated. He just planted the seed and let the nature of a small town take its course, fertilizing the rumor that he started until it bloomed fully. About a month later, at the annual fireman’s ball one of the
other wives rushed up to my mother exclaiming, “Oh! Thank God you and John are back together.” My mother, ever vigilant and well aware of his games, glared at him. After not so subtly expressing her displeasure at the mere insinuation that they were separated he stopped her with a wink and said, “Look Ellen, it was the truth. We were separated at
the time. I was at the fire department and you were at home.”
His grin got him out of all sorts of trouble. If he played a prank; he committed to it on a level that most of us would lose interest in because we lacked his creativity. He would deny any participation even if he was caught red handed which was rare. He would just smile and spread his hands out and say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about” But he never laughed at a person, just the comedy of life which we all shared. Though he could shift gears at any moment and go from comedian to philosopher to hero, his one
constant was integrity. More to the point of who my father was…he was the man who helped a woman pay her electric bill because her last dime went to paying for food for her six children. He enrolled her for immediate financial relief because she wasn’t shirking her responsibilities. She couldn’t make ends meet after her husband had his leg shot off in a mugging for his leather jacket. Dad did his due diligence and interviewed the family and then the landlord and found out that her family had never been late with
payment, rent, electric or otherwise before this happened. He went to his employer and laid out their case, fighting tooth and nail for some form of respite for them. He received a citation in caring award for this and went on to be the recipient of this award three more times in the course of his career. That Christmas, she baked him cookies and he came home, place them reverently on the kitchen counter and then wept because he understood the gravity of that gift. It was all she had to give him and it was worth more to him than any award sitting on a shelf.
He didn’t like to take credit for anything. He simply went about his life, navigating by his sense of right and wrong. He helped those that needed help without fanfare. He was a self-taught scholar. He mistrusted most authority figures. He liked to look at all sides and often took the position of devil’s advocate simply because he could. He tried his best
to learn without agenda. He questioned everything and would read any bit of history he could get his hands on to understand the how’s and why’s and mostly the what can we do better’s. Though his life was punctuated by loss; he never lost hope or laughter. He was kind. He was funny. He was direct. He could be quiet and aloof. He could size up a room and everyone in it within 3 minutes of walking in. He was a keeper of secrets and a
constant and calming presence in many lives.
My father was the perfect foil to my mother. She loves the limelight and he loved being perched in the catbird seat. She would make grand sweeping proclamations like “it was the most magnificent thing that I’ve ever encountered in my life”, and when I would ask if it were more magnificent than the sale on marigolds, yesterday’s sunset or the AT&T commercial that she’d waxed on about earlier in the week he would bark at me to be nice to my mother and then mutter under his breath, but don’t forget the Les Miz
soundtrack and how magnificent that was. They were perfect for each other. My mother is all kitty sweatshirts and love songs and rainbows and open hearted – telling her life story even within five minutes of meeting someone –genuine goodness. My father was a bit more reserved, more Johnny Cash if you will. He would quietly build her up or level her off with a gentleness that belied his size. He was her cautionary voice and he protected her – always. She often worried what the neighbors might think. This was a source of some contention in my youth, because neither Dad nor I cared a fig about what the neighbors think. We were of the mind that we were good people. We were kind and neighborly so if our neighbors felt the need to question, then we might as well make it interesting. My mother also tried very hard to instill a sense of ladylike delicacy and
fragility in me which my father slyly undermined WHENEVER he could as he did not believe girls should be either delicate or fragile. He believed in self-reliance and instilled that in me instead; always with the provision that the conversation remain between us. It usually started with; your mother’s heart is in the right place….
To flex these self-reliant muscles, I once told a teacher midway through my freshman year that she was a water retaining sea cow because I was angry at how rotten she was to students. She wasn’t my teacher, but she picked on some of the meeker kids and I didn’t like it. The school promptly called my mother to inform her that the teacher had to take the rest of the day off because of me and that I was a menace to the nicer children in town. My father pulled me aside, laughed appreciatively of my creativity and then informed me of three things to know about my big words:
1) Know your audience
2) Know your limits
3) And if I was willing to sling around insults so freely then it was high time I learned how to do it properly and with flair. Go to a library, he said, to learn what Winston Churchill said about tact.
So I did and the librarian looked at me suspiciously when she heard my request, but pointed me in the right direction. He told my mother that he’d sorted me out and she was none the wiser, until now. I have lived by those three rules ever since. The following week I even graced the sea hag with the compliment that “Her complexion was positively
glowing. She must be hydrating.” She beamed at thought that I appeared repentant until I further inquired, “Might it be from drinking the tears of anguished students?” He high fived me for that one and then told me to knock off my crap.
My parents set the bar high in terms of what a marriage should be. They always made time for each other, even if it was a single hour just talking about life at the kitchen table. Their devotion to each other was infinite. She made their surroundings beautiful and he in turn pampered her whenever he could. He believed that you chased your own woman, every day, every chance you got because you won the lottery when she agreed to
marry you. It was your moral imperative to woo her and treasure her and spoil her and puff up with pride when she was on your arm because that is your bride. In his mind, the grass would never be any greener than it was in their homestead. My Kindergarten teacher told my mother during parent/teacher conference that I had informed my
entire class that Daddy pinches Mommy’s bum while she does the dishes and she was mortified. He, on the other hand, felt he deserved a medal and perhaps the role of the grand marshall in a parade of husbands; but this kind of swagger was rare.
When we met with the florist to arrange the flowers for Dad’s service, I kept saying to her
- keep it simple
- Dad would have wanted simple.
“Okay”, she said sweetly, but I could already see her eyes glazing over at the prospect of all the pretty stuff in the store. We and by we I mean me… but “we” had tried to
focus on the fact that Dad would have not wanted a fuss and all arrangements should be tasteful. I had already nixed her choice of hiring Michael Buble to sing My Way or having our family attempt to solemnly proceed into this shindig to the Benny Hill theme song and I hoped that since I’m an adult she’d listen to my excellent reasoning. Dad would have preferred to have donations in his name to something of merit. He wouldn’t have appreciated a big fat floral to do, but at the sight of the first shiny vase, I could see that this was where Mom’s and my thought processes parted ways.
She innocently asked, “This may be a silly question, but since it’s fall, would pumpkins be out of line?”
I managed to keep the expletive laden plea to a higher power in my head where it belonged, but I swear I heard my father’s voice whispering from somewhere over by the sunflowers….STOPPPPPPP HEEEEEEEEEEEER
My mother’s friend and the florist sweetly informed her that perhaps it wasn’t the right occasion for such a decoration but I had a more direct approach. I would like to point out that there are no pumpkins here. You’re welcome Dad.
The week that he was in hospice was the longest week of our lives. Time lost all definable measure. It was never so cruelly short but now the increments of time measured in memories and not minutes. My loved ones rallied behind me to free me of my normal
responsibilities so I could do what needed to be done. They knew before I did that I wasn’t leaving him – period. I wasn’t ready. I had so many more lessons I wanted to learn from him but Alzheimer’s had robbed him of the wisdom and quiet dignity that
was his hallmark. I know most girls look at their father like he’s a hero, but mine actually was. He ran into burning buildings when everybody else was running out. My interpretation of the term hero was less comic book and more literal as a child and if
ever there were schoolyard spitting matches over whose Dad was the biggest, strongest, bravest…I won. He was a hero in so many ways and at the end of his life I vowed he would not leave this world alone. I told him as much one morning at 2AM and
I’m pretty sure if he’d had the strength to do so he would have rolled his eyes and told me that I was still a pain in the ass.
He became the man of the house at 8 years old when his father died. He went to work for a local dairy in order to keep his family at least partially fed with the milk and bread and cheese and butter that he was paid with. This cemented who he became.
If you ever questioned what ticked at the deepest level of his heart it was this: Family first, family always. He was very deliberate in his decisions and they were always driven by if it was right for us, not just him. His unwavering faith in our abilities to stand in the face of every challenge thrown at us was tested many times and his strength carried us
through some of the darkest hours of our lives with humor and with quiet determination. In the last two years of his illness; my sounding board and voice of
reason was gone. I think if you asked any member of our family how we feel about losing Dad, it would be an overwhelming sense of relief that his crippling loss of independence and his suffering are at an end, followed by bone numbing grief but then love and laughter.
My hope for all of us here is that the love helps us all heal and that the laughter we shared with him will lift him up to where he belongs; that grief will subside and fade the way old photographs do and the sharp edges of this pain will smooth over like tumbled rocks. I pray that the memories and the lessons of living a life filled with purpose will take root to guide the next generation of us because we teach what we have learned.
That goodness, that laughter, that honesty, that integrity, that brilliant wit, that sly grin that always let us know that he was precisely three steps ahead of us at all times, that humility, that generous sharing of his many talents….that is our gift from
What he taught us lives on in us. We are not helpless in our grief. How we teach our children and grandchildren to navigate, not the good times, but the bad, not the easy times but the steepest of challenges with faith and light and laughter and kindness is our mark in this life. Anyone can soar. It’s the easiest thing in the world to ride the highs.
But when life hands us our greatest burdens and grinds our will and our strength to the ground; know that a crawl leads to a step and a step leads to a walk and a walk leads to a run and a run leads to a leap of faith. He showed us that through every challenge of his life. It defined him and therefore defines us when we follow in his footsteps.
We would like to thank our friends and family for the overwhelming support and strength you’ve given us to walk this road. And on an extremely personal note, I want to tell every person here that my father was loved, deeply and gently; with respect and
dignity by the amazing people at Morris View who I will forever consider a part of my family.
My family; we come from a proud tribe. We come from a long line of rebellious, free thinking individuals who have little patience for conformity. We come from the proud band of people that put a higher premium on doing the right thing than getting
the better reward. We come from men and women that loved family and friends and life and a good joke and a good time and a good meal and a good beverage and we raise our glasses not for ourselves but for the victories of those we love. And that is my father’s legacy. We should carry that forward into our lives, every day…to honor him; because a man like my father doesn’t come along often.
There is an old song called the Parting Glass. I think I can safely use part of it here to sum up what my father would have wanted. He would have dried our tears and embraced our laughter and encourage us on this day to be joyful for the time we had with him,
to treasure the memories and the laughter we shared. He would want our stories to flow like water, washing away our loss with love because in so many ways he was the quintessential Irishman….
So I quote: But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise while you should not
I will gently rise and I’ll softly call
Goodnight and joy be with you all.