As a result of a sporting accident, The Dave Matthews Band lost Leroi Moore, their original saxophonist, to death in August of 2008. Facing a time where they could have collapsed in their sorrow and grief, the band decided to dedicate their next album (which they were recording at the time) to their fallen comrade. The first single off of that album was “Funny The Way It Is,” which manages to reflect on the ironic nature of life and death. Of course, as someone who has a deeply ironic sense of humor, and the tendency to reflect seriously on both life and death, it happens to be a song of theirs I can relate to for deeply personal reasons. For those who are not aware of those reasons, I would like to take at least a little bit of time to explain the significance of this song at this particular time of year.
Every year from the end of December to early February I reflect, even if only privately, on the last days and death of my father. For as long as I live, I will probably remember two phone calls I got that marked the beginning and end of that period, both of them from my grandmother Lucille, who died the next year herself. While I was in the movie theater watching Munich on December 25, 2005, I got a cell phone call from my paternal grandmother telling me that my father had suffered a massive stroke the previous day and was in the hospital. I was, of course, greatly alarmed to hear the news, and I talked to those people I knew who took care of those who had suffered from strokes and were rehabilitating about what the process of recovery would be like. Some six weeks later, on February 8, 2006, I got another call from my grandmother telling me that my father had died that day as I was at the house of my accountant at the time who was doing my taxes for 2005.
Two years after the death of my father, a friend of mine died after a lengthy battle with cancer, and so every year while I reflect on the life and death of my own father, his children (who are also friends) simultaneously reflect on the life and death of their father also. While I certainly loved my father (and he loved me, in his own fashion), as is often the case with my family, my feelings for my father were intensely complicated. Despite some profound differences in personality and approach (and certainly political worldview), my father and I also share some deep similarities that I reflect on deeply and seriously. Among these similarities that has caused a great deal of complication and suffering is the often severe distance that my father tended to keep from other people, who often were shocked to think of themselves as close friends despite infrequent communication with and lengthy distance from my father. The same is true for me, as I am someone whose loyalty to friends does not depend on an absence of distance. Nevertheless, in my own life I have found that I too have tended to feel more comfortable with people at a distance, a tendency I work hard to overcome but something which is nevertheless a frequent issue that I have to deal with.
Nevertheless, despite all of the issues of attachment and distance, besides all of the other issues from my childhood experiences, there are ways that I feel intensely proud to be a man like my own father, even if it is awkward for me to be around those who knew him and to be constantly told how much I look like him (aside from being less portly). My father was intensely loyal to others, had a heart devoted to service, was extremely hard working, disliked complaining, was a gregarious and sociable person (even if he eschewed intimacy), and he had a gentle and kindhearted mentality towards animals. For all of his aloofness and distance from others, he was a deeply sensitive person who deserved people who were as understanding of him and his own insecurities. Having been raised in a rather fractious and abusive family, he did not receive an upbringing that was calculated to bring him confidence in dealing with young ladies or in exercising authority. All too often his sociability and loud personality masked intense silence about emotional matters as well as a deep-seated loneliness that came from walling up all of his feelings behind fortress walls and never letting anyone in. Eventually, the stress killed him. Ever since his stroke (and especially since his heart attack), I have been intensely motivated to deal with my own similar issues in a more productive way, knowing that my own life is at stake and that I am on the clock.
In some unexpected ways, I owe my father for a variety of interests. For one, my father was a voracious reader and collector of books (mostly books on his interests or self-improvement books, along with books on history and the Bible). Obviously, this interest was passed on to me, as was a healthy collection of books over the course of the years, including my first books on the Civil War and my first atlas, both of which sparked lifelong interests in the American Civil War as well as geography. Knowing my interest in military history from childhood, the road trips my father and brother and I would make in the summers between Florida and Pennsylvania were the opportunities for many visits to fortresses and battlefields, which I was always interested in seeing. They were also the chance to visit congregations in far flung places, another interest I inherited from my parents. Despite the fact that my father was definitely somewhat of a homebody, he loved to watch movies, was very athletic (we shared an interest in skiing, for example, even though we never skied together, and frequently watched baseball games in Pittsburgh during my youth), and had a sense of adventure when it came to travel, and in many ways he encouraged both my brother and I to enjoy these activities as well. It is clear that despite the distance between us, both geographical and emotional, that he greatly influenced our lives for the better in many cases. Certainly, he encouraged quite a few of my own gifts, including writing and history, and for that I will always be very grateful.
Memory is a funny thing. As long as I can look in the mirror and see more than a little bit of my father looking back at me, or as long as I see the same sort of awkwardness and loud sociability in my own behavior, I know my father has not entirely died but lives on in me. If I ever have any children or nephews and nieces who are blond, ruddy, love sports and animals, and are loud and sociable but also deeply private about emotional matters, I know that my father will have lived on in them also. With time, if God permits, perhaps more of the rough edges will be gently smoothed away with me (or with the next generation afterward) that my father never lost. God willing, hopefully my own marital relations will be less tragic than was the case for my parents, and hopefully my children will have fewer scars and wounds (even if they will inevitably have some), and fewer squabbles and miscommunications. It would be good if something was learned over the course of generations of suffering. There is a good legacy as well, though, that deserves to be passed down. As I grow older I have a vastly greater sympathy for my father given the intensity of his own suffering, and of his own noble but futile efforts to take the suffering and anxiety of his own insecurities on himself rather than deliberately burden others with them. If it does not entirely exculpate my father, at least having walked many miles in his shoes I am inclined to be merciful knowing I too need mercy. For I too am my father’s son.