My dad disliked a lot of things. One of the things he disliked most were eulogies that turned a common sinner into the holiest of saints. In honor of his preference for a realistic portrait, I will now list all the annoying things he said and did throughout his life. I’ll try to keep it under an hour.
If you ever asked my dad "What does the clock say," he'd respond, "It doesn't say anything, it's a clock."
ERRGGH! Just tell me the time!
Whenever the phone rang, he facetiously announced, “If it’s for me, I’m not here.” Every. Single. Time.
My dad loved sports. He knew football, baseball, and golf well, but he did not really get basketball. So rather than enjoy, say, any of the six Bulls Championships, he preferred to loudly announce to his sons that, “The fix is in,” whenever Jordan pulled off some fourth quarter heroics.
Fortunately for him, these grave sins were compensated by his virtues. I have countless fond memories of my dad, from throwing a football around Crescent Park as a little kid, to sailing on Lake Michigan as a teenager, to talking books with him as an adult. I remember all the summer vacations he took us on across the United States. The soundtrack of those trips—Beethoven, Copeland, Schubert, Orff, Berlioz, the Who—even today makes me think of the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Pacific, and the interminable cornfields of the Midwest.
And I remember how, within minutes of meeting the woman who would become my wife, he explained the etymology of a word by quoting a line from Virgil’s The Aeneid.
"Did he quote it in Latin?"
Why, yes, he did. My dad not know The Aeneid in English. My sister was in that conversation and quipped, "Well hello, Professor Dad!"
My dad’s love of knowledge spans the categories of things that made me proud and things that made me embarrassed. After all, I'm a member of the South Side Irish. Basic literacy is suspicious to us. Even still, pride trumped embarrassment every time. I was always proud of not just how smart my dad was, but how curious he was. He made me believe I was morally obliged to know things, from current events to world history to science, and that by knowing things I would enjoy life more deeply.
In one of our final conversations I asked him if he was scared, and he said no. He told me he tried to be good to other people and had asked for forgiveness for when he had not been. He then went onto formulate another reason for not being afraid. God wants us to know him, and by knowing him, we must know the universe. "And how will I know the universe?" he said, "Well, I assume that will take me an eternity. That sounds pretty cool to me."
Now, lest any of you think the apple fell far from the tree, and I am just some Old Style swillin’ South Side Johnny, let me end with an obscure literary anecdote.
When the English writer Joseph Addison lay dying in June of 1719, he summoned his stepson, the Earl of Warwick, to his bedside. Samuel Johnson described the Earl as "a young man, of very irregular life, and perhaps of loose opinions." In other words, a wild kid on the wrong path. When Warwick arrived, Addison said, "I have sent for you so that you may see how a Christian can die."
I stumbled across this anecdote years ago, probably when I was in college, and it stuck with me. I’ve wondered many times why Addison thought his death would be edifying.
Now that I have seen my dad’s Christian approach to death, I know. From the moment he learned of his cancer in the spring of 2014, my dad never complained, never despaired, and embraced every day of his life. As he wrote for his high school class notes last October, "Many who see me do not understand the seriousness of my situation because I have not emphasized the gravity of the illness. I do recognize the seriousness of cancer, but I also recognize the seriousness of other diseases. My intention from the start of my cancer has been to share with others the possibility, and need, to understand that cancer is part of my life, not an enemy to be valiantly fought or opposed. Life was worth living the day I was born; it will be worth living the day I die. Cancer is part of me, not my enemy. I am at peace with cancer."
All of my dad’s friends and family who were lucky to spend time with him recently, even in his final week, can attest to this peace.
Of Addison and Warwick's deathbed encounter, Samuel Johnson wrote, "What effect this awful scene had on the Earl, I know not; he likewise died himself in a short time."
If Addison had any of the grace, composure, and joy that my dad exuded each day, then I can assure you it did wonders for the Earl of Warwick.