My dad died on February 12th, 1992 – twenty six years ago today. He was hit by a car crossing the street in my home town. The kid driving the car had only had his license for a week, and was neither drunk nor speeding – he just didn’t notice my dad in the crosswalk until it was too late.
My memories from that day and the week that followed are a jumble. I was living in London with Nina, then my wife of 18 months or so and now my wife of 28 years. The call came in the middle of the night from my brother at the hospital to tell me that dad had been hit by a car, that he was in a coma, and that things didn’t look good.
He went to get my mom and I was left waiting for five minutes or so, during which I felt a sense of profound peace that I interpreted at the time as a sign that my dad was going to be OK. When my mom got on the line to tell me that he was dead, I felt betrayed. (For what it’s worth, I now think I may well have been feeling the deeper sense of universal wellbeing that many people describe in the moment of the death of a loved one, but at the time I just felt lied to by God.)
The rest of that day and the week that followed is now a series of discontinuous but incredibly distinct memories. The first was the incredible kindness of an unknown woman at an unremembered airline who not only took her time to talk a sobbing, hysterical stranger through the process of booking a flight home the next day. I can’t even remember if or how we paid for the flight – just her patience and presence.
The second was Nina’s gentle insistence that she was coming back with me for the funeral. It’s not that I thought she shouldn’t, but rather that it never occurred to me that she would. After all, she had a job and he wasn’t her father. But her absolute certainty and quiet disbelief that I would even question her coming made an impression on me. In that moment, I got some inkling in a deeper way of what it meant to share your life with someone.
Third was a moment of insight on the plane home. While thinking about what I would say at the funeral, I was suddenly fiercely determined that the sadness we all felt at his death would not be turned into a questioning of the value of life. My dad, as best I could tell, loved his life. He loved us, he loved my mom, he loved his work and the people who worked with him. He had a natural curiosity about people, and was inclined to like someone even before he got to know them.
He loved the outdoors. In fact, almost every memory I have of him was connected to nature – at the picnic table on our patio, on the upward trail of a mountain hiking, or leading the pack (and later in life following it) as we skied down a trail in Vermont or one of the resorts above lake Tahoe.
So the idea that my dad’s life was in any way diminished because it ended prematurely didn’t make sense to me. Yes, we were sad. We would miss him. But he got to live all the days of his life – no more, no less. And it felt to me at the time that we owed it to him to do the same.
That didn’t mean I didn’t grieve – I did and from time to time still do, even after all these years. It just means that I didn’t turn that grief into a grievance, tallying another black mark in the “Reasons Why Life Sucks” column so I could make a pro/con evaluation of the value of staying in the game.
Fourth was seeing the closed casket at the funeral. It hadn’t occurred to me beforehand, but when I stood next to it I somehow knew my dad wasn’t in there. The essence, spirit, and love that he embodied wasn’t in his body.
Now, I have no profound views on where it was or if it was in any way still “my dad” as I remember him. But there was something profoundly freeing in that moment, and it lightened the burden of carrying the casket as a pallbearer and seeing it lowered it in the ground. Yes, I was saying goodbye to my father as I knew him, but I didn’t have to say goodbye to the love I felt for him or the memory of the love he shared with me.
There are many more memories that flood back from that time – some surprisingly funny, others heart rendingly sad. But the fifth that I will remember forever is going through the letters of condolence that arrived in droves from the moment his death was announced in the local newspaper.
They were all heartfelt – some awkward and some beautifully written – but what struck me most was the sheer volume of them. My mom received over 400 cards, notes, and letters, many from people I had never even heard of.
The one that stands out in my memory to this day was from a couple who had met my parents while hitchhiking a ride back to their car from the end of a hiking trail. Somehow that brief time spent with my mom and dad had stayed with them, creating a possibility for what a marriage could look like after more than three decades.
There was something very “It’s A Wonderful Life’ about it. While I doubt my dad ever thought about it, his life touched a lot of lives. And while I like the freedom that comes from ‘dancing like there’s no one watching’, I also kind of love the responsibility of living as though someone’s always watching, and learning from what they see.
I have little memory of the eulogy I actually gave, though it definitely included a fully rendered impression of my dad singing “We’re on the Upward Trail” to my then girlfriend Nina on her first hike with our family. But if I were to offer him a eulogy today, I’d sum it up something like this:
Here’s to you, dad – you taught me by example what it is to be a man, but more than that what it is to be a human being. I miss you, I love you, and I always will…
With all my love,
[wpdevart_facebook_comment curent_url=”https://www.michaelneill.org/cfts1117” order_type=”reverse_time” width=”100%” count_of_comments=”8″ ]