Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ashes to Ashes

Four small bags of ashes contained in two canisters, the remains of my father. Notice I did not write, total remains. The reason being, my Dad touched so many lives that every remembrance in the minds of those he impacted will keep him alive for a good long measure. I'm sure his name will be mentioned often and heads will bow come this fall, this football season (my dad's other three seasons being "round ball" "round ball" and "round ball" or basketball, baseball, golf). Moments of silence may ensue. The measure of a man is how well he is remembered. And he will most definitely be remembered well.

But, the stark reality of small bags of dust being thrust (per his request) about the 50 yard line, where he "lived" the life he loved, was at once surreal/lucid. Such a man reduced to this? But even as that thought occurred so did the inner-vision arise before my mind-eye almost able to see my father on the sidelines. For there was no place he'd rather be than in the thick of battle, employing all his wits and knowledge of the game he loved, calling offensive plays and defensive schemes (yeah, he did it all in those days) pacing up and down, chewing out the referees (Oh, woe unto the poor shtupp who blew a call) and always, always teaching life lessons to his "men" as the game progressed. And, believe me, having heard more than my fair share of emotional speeches, there was no better half-time motivator than my father. His team would roar out of the locker room nearly busting the doors off their hinges.

The above remarks refer to my lucid thoughts. As for the surreal? That any of the above means anything at all. Such rituals beget nothing, save for peace of mind if one believes hard enough. Of course, to us, to human beings, such loss is traumatic. We go through our grief period before numbing out to a new reality, one with a gaping hole in our heart; never again able to feel full. Or, rather full enough. Psychoanalysts might say of such a relationship that boundaries have been breached, torn asunder even, given such connectedness; maybe even going so far as to suggest such "love" isn't healthy to the individual.

Be that as it may, if you're lucky enough to have had or now be in a relationship with a person you love and respect, one who has experienced life's ups and downs alongside of you for a good number of years and you can still honestly say this person is your best friend, consider yourself blessed and forewarned: Love them now. Love them with all your heart. And, live your life together well. Because at the end of it, even a "long life" ends too soon. When you lose a loved one you lose something that cannot be replaced. Your life becomes changed; more empty. Fantasies of everything working out become less believable. In fact, you will need to work harder than ever to maintain the will to go on as so much of you has been irretrievably lost. Regardless of what "shrinks" might think, losing a father, mother, child, wife, leaves a void that will never heal over; a sinkhole of lost love that sucks the energy from your soul.

HINT: Not a bad rationale for creating G/god(s) to help alleviate the misery, to fill that hole in your heart with versions of an afterlife where there will be jubilant reunions and everything will be wonderful again.

HINT: Knock! Knock! No one home… Not gonna happen!

Or so go the endless existentialist thoughts. This writer is hardly the first to anguish over such considerations and won't be the last. Well, not until the last human breathes his/her last breath on this dying planet. Although, for each of us, the essence of who we are, breathes its final breath upon death. The body follows all too quickly (as this writer can attest to having worked his way through college as a grave digger). What is left behind is sorrow, loss, and that's if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, add in remorse, guilt, shame or the ol' woulda-coulda-shoulda trifecta.

So, if you love your mother and/or father, if they were a big part of your life, if what they have given you extends well beyond the obligatory material support of food on the table and a roof over your head, be thankful and give her or him a call and maybe say "thanks" for all they did and for the values instilled in you that make you who you are. We like to think "things" will stay the way they've "always" been. Not so. The tomorrow of change is right around the next corner. Go ahead, phone home.

But, whatever you do or don't do, remember we come into this world the way we exit: Alone. Regardless of how many people may be bedside for the death watch, once the curtain drops, the individual spirit leaves the body. And whether your custom requires the body to rot in the ground or cremation ashes to be sprinkled about, one fact is for certain: No one leaves here alive. A single lifetime isn't ever enough.

So, live and love well. This too-short life is the only one we have.

As for my father, today, and every day from here on, he is nowhere and everywhere.

Monday, April 6, 2009

When Dads Die

My dad died yesterday. Just slipped away. There are no words to convey the loss. He has been in my life for all of my life. Until now. So, how can I believe he's in a "better place" when his place is here with his family? How can I believe "God" has required he "come home" when his home is with his family? How can I believe his not being here is better than him being here?

I cannot.

My father taught by example. His integrity was sacrosanct. He was honest to a fault (e.g., My mom would often say he couldn't even schmooze to get ahead). He was hard working, often working three jobs. His love for his family was unconditional. He believed in human beings, that all human beings regardless of gender or race or creed are our brothers and sisters and should be treated with respect. Having been a teacher "back in the day" when teachers made so very little money, he rarely had anything more than change in his pocket. But, should one of his kids be with him, he'd spend every last cent on them. And, we had six kids in our family. That may seem like a huge family now. But for him, he came from a poor immigrant family with 15 children, some of whom were adopted, for when a local child had no one else to turn my father's parents would take them in and treat them as one of their own. He was the youngest. He was a great athlete, "hard-nosed," a golden gloves boxer, ran track, played baseball, but football was always his first love. His football prowess earned him a spot on the Syracuse University football team and he was a standout quarterback. He coached football for most of his life. He always maintained that football IS life. And, for those who've played the game, you understand perfectly what that means. What you learn about football is that no matter how good you are, you're going to get knocked down. Football is a violent sport; not merely contact but collision. Sometimes you get hit so hard you can't imagine getting up. But if you've learned well, you do get up. For football is family and you have a responsibility to your team mates, your school, yourself. I remember well the holidays when he would have team members that had difficult family circumstances over for Thanksgiving dinner or at Christmas time. Didn't matter if they were (per his favorite saying) "black or white or polka dot for that matter" they would come and join our family festivities. He would always make himself available to any of his football "kids" whenever they had a problem at school or at home and would do whatever he could to intervene and alleviate the problem. What came through loud and clear was that whether you were a first team starter or third team bench sitter, if when knocked down you got right back up and gave it all you had, he loved you for it and respected you for never giving up.

His dedication was total. I remember watching "game films" for hours every Sunday morning. Every play run 22 times in order to watch each and every position on both sides of the ball. He would instruct me as to technique (blocking, tackling, ball carrying, ball handling, receiver routes, etc) and discuss each player's responsibility for every play. He always stayed a student of the game; always learning, studying and attempting innovation for better results. He was very successful. He had a number of chances to actually move to the college ranks but due to the very poor salaries (even worse than a high school teacher!) and having a substantial family he never could pursue that dream; another sacrifice he willingly made for his family. I suppose some people thought he had underachieved by not coaching at the college level. But, having lived through the depression, having come from such a large, poor family he achieved quite a lot and all he ever really wanted: A loving family and home of his own. Besides, what other people thought of him never phased him one iota.

My dad was a compassionate human being. A hero, really, in that he set such a fine example not by simply talking the talk but by walking the walk. He would often say how he's lived his life in such a fashion that every night he puts his head on the pillow he falls asleep without any problem; meaning he was guilt-free for living true to his ideals. He always walked with head held high—not out of arrogance, but rather, confidence in his equality –even as he was always humble and courteous.

He made me who I am. Just as he made my sisters and brothers the people they are. And who are we? What kind of people? The kind that will step between a bully and victim, that will share what little we might have with someone less fortunate, that will work on behalf of people with needs rather than our wants, that will maintain our integrity in the face of adversity, that will live by truth and serve justice, that will speak our minds regardless of who approves and believe as we see fit rather than according to custom or scripture or any other box that people tend to imprison themselves in, and most important of all, we are people that get back up when knocked down ready to give it our all.

So many people today seem to have issues with their parents, with how they were treated or how their parents didn't this or did that or whatever, never once embracing the single reality of parents being people. Parents aren't gods. But, the lucky among us realize this fact. The luckier among us are those that had loving human beings for parents; had a dad like mine.

This loss is forever. Never to be replaced or repaired or forgotten. But, every day of my life has been and will remain a reaffirmation of the righteous life-lessons taught by my father. For I will live as he taught me to live, as a compassionate human being with unbowed head.

Thank you, dad.

All my love and respect.

Son Steven