As “Taps” is being played by a woman in an Army uniform holding a trumpet, another man in uniform stands at attention by my father’s coffin. In this moment, I’m mostly focused on my mother, who I can feel trembling slightly beneath the grip of my fingers around her shoulder, which is why it takes me a moment to notice that the woman holding the trumpet is not actually playing the trumpet.
The tears welling up against the dam of my eyelids have blurred my vision, so I wipe them away to focus more carefully on what I’m seeing. No, the trumpet is definitely not touching her mouth. So where is that music coming from?
Confusion now occupies the space in my brain that had previously been focused on my grief, my mother and absorbing the details of the funeral service and all I can focus on are the two 20-something cadets at my father’s graveside, who I now notice are wearing uniform pants that don’t match their jackets. Their pants are black and their jackets are blue — aren’t they meant to match? And where is that music coming from?
I shift my position to get a better look at the space behind the trees, or to see if there are speakers hidden behind the coffin. Ryan notices the weird expression on my face and the way I’m moving my head around frantically to look over every inch of the trumpet player and squeezes my arm to stop me from fidgeting.
“She’s not really playing that thing,” I whisper.
“Sshh,” he says, squeezing my hand as if to communicate “I know the fake trumpet is weird, but now is not the time. Let it go.”
But I can’t let it go. I am fully distracted now. My cousin Jed, who plays the bugle, had offered to play “Taps” at my dad’s funeral, saying it would be an honor. And I said it wasn’t necessary because the funeral home sent the Army my dad’s discharge papers and they notified us they would send someone to play the trumpet and provide a military burial.
Yet here is a woman in a mismatched uniform holding a toy trumpet an inch away from her lips as the speaker, which I can now see is hidden inside the plastic horn, plays a song that was selected with the press of a button. I am wondering what other songs the toy trumpet plays, and how funny it would be if she hit the wrong button and the trumpet started belting out “La Cucaracha” in the middle of the funeral. I smile and almost snort with laughter. Ryan pinches my arm again.
When the song finishes, the female cadet sets her fake plastic trumpet on the ground and steps towards the American flag draped over my father’s coffin and proceeds to carefully fold the flag with the help of her non-trumpet-playing colleague. When the folding is complete, the man holding the flag scans the crowd as though lost. And I realize he has no idea who the widow is that he is meant to present the flag to.
The cadet scans the crowd like a panicked child looking for his mother and, holding the neatly folded flag triangle, marches off in a random direction towards a woman who is most definitely not my mother.
A few polite onlookers cough and clear their throats while discreetly pointing towards the spot where my mother and I are standing. But the cadet continues marching forward, changing direction towards any woman holding a tissue. Eventually someone behind us whispers loudly, “Psst! Over here!” until the cadet turns his head and finally focuses his gaze on my mother. When he reaches my mother, he bows and presents the flag to her.
And this is what I woke up thinking about this morning.
This Memorial Day holiday really snuck up on me this year and it was only yesterday that I remembered its significance. It startled me, like a polite friend clearing his throat to get my attention after a few minutes of watching me stare aimlessly off into space.
It is a sudden and unexpected reminder of the people I’ve lost over the last year and a half: my grandmother, my grandfather and, most recently, my father. And it’s also a nudge to remind me that I’ve been stuck in some sort of grieving limbo for the last month since my dad died, and maybe it’s time to start moving forward again. It’s time to start thinking about and planning the future again.
I thought after my dad’s funeral, after I had some closure on my grief, I could resume normal activity and return to working on the long list of things that needed doing, a list that continues to grow the closer we get to buying a new boat and embarking on an epic adventure sailing around the world.
But when we returned to Hideaway in St. Martin a few days after my dad’s funeral and started prepping the boat to sell her and take her on one last sailing journey to St. Barths, I found myself frequently drifting off, mid-task. Our days seemed to be full of normal, mundane jobs, like washing the boat, scrubbing the hull, dinghying to shore with our water jugs and shlepping 25 gallons at a time back to Hideaway to fill up her water tanks, an overly time-consuming job in St. Martin, where our anchorage is a 25-minute dinghy ride from any of the nearest docks.
As I sat on deck, siphoning water from the jugs to our tank, I found myself staring into space. Ryan would catch me and ask what was wrong. And I would start rambling about how my dad is gone and here we are just going about life as normal, buying groceries, filling the water tanks, cleaning up cat puke, doing the laundry.
“I just keep thinking, so this is it? This is what happens? An important person in your life completely disappears from Earth and we just keep on doing what we did before? We make lunch, we vacuum the boat, we wash dishes and life just goes on without my dad? The universe doesn’t stop to acknowledge it, even for a second? We’re here one minute, and the next minute we’re not, and the world just keeps on doing all the insignificant things that make up our daily lives while a person is just wiped from existence like their life never happened?”
As I said these things out loud, my voice trembled and tears rolled down my cheeks, and I knew there was nothing Ryan could say to change this fact and there was nothing I could do to make the universe stop doing what it does.
“Life goes on,” said Ryan. “It has to. That is both the beauty and the cruelty of it.”
“But it’s not fair,” I said, my face growing hot. “It’s not fair that it has to be that way.”
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and I picked up another water jug while trying to hold on to thoughts of my dad and not let my mind be distracted from him, as I watched the water trickle through the siphon and into the tank. In that moment, my daily routines felt like that fake trumpet player at the funeral, a distraction from what was really important. I felt like I should be holding on to memories of my father during every waking moment and not be distracted by the little tasks that mean life continues on without him.
But I also know that I need the distractions, the list of tasks I have to accomplish, and the little things that make me laugh. Because these are the things that allow life to continue moving forward despite the grief and sadness.
But today, on Memorial Day, I have an excuse to put all distractions aside and remember my dad, mourn his absence and think about his impact on my life. Today I reflect on the lessons my dad taught me, which I carefully wrote and falteringly spoke at his funeral service:
Eulogy for Dad, April 18, 2015
If you came here today expecting a garage sale full of car parts, having read my dad’s obituary, I apologize. That’s my fault. My mom’s not yet forgiven me for all the phone calls asking about the upcoming garage-sale-slash-funeral.
If you’re here, you know already what a kind and generous person my dad was. You know that because you probably have tools in your house my dad gave you, or maybe a plastic pink flamingo he thought would make you laugh, or a dozen other things bought from Lot Less or Home Depot because my dad was thinking of you while he was wandering up and down the aisles in his spare time.
My dad wasn’t just generous with things, though. He was incredibly generous with his time, his encouragement and his wisdom.
Like most children, I grew up only knowing my father as a dad, as the guy who taught me everything he knew – how to swim, how to ski, how to play piano, how to ice-skate, how to find a bargain, how to change a tire and how to take apart a carburetor when it was flooded with gas. Which was something I had to do often with the ’73 Triumph Spitfire my dad fixed up for me to drive.
But as I got older and took on passions of my own, straying farther and farther from my parents’ interests, my dad (though he didn’t always understand my passions) never wavered in his support and encouragement of me, or his insistence that I could achieve anything I wanted to in life.
Sure, he used to say with exasperation, “You send your kid to college, and she comes back a Democrat,” as he was often confused by my politics and my hobbies, wondering why I supported Obama and hated Bush, why I liked soccer when he loved tennis, why I didn’t want to play the banjo like he did, and why I traveled to far-flung places like Russia and the Middle East. He wondered what drove me to do and want the things I did, but even when he couldn’t understand my passions, he supported me in whatever crazy path I was chasing at the time, and he made me feel that I was safe, loved and 100% supported. Which was the very thing that allowed me to go out into the world alone and explore. Because I was never really alone. My mom and dad were here at home, stretching out a safety net for me to fall back on if things didn’t work out.
It was after college, when I left home and flew to Russia to teach English with the Peace Corps, that I really got to know my dad as the individual most of you have been lucky to know for so long. I got to know him better because our main mode of communication for over a decade, as I traveled the world, was email. And it was through his emails that he told me stories from his life, stories I’d never heard before, and he imparted his wisdom and perspective on the situations I found myself in, drawing from his own experiences.
These last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time rifling through old photos of my dad and reading all our old email correspondences during those years I was living in the Russian Far East, when I felt frustrated by the cultural conflicts and when I was questioning what my purpose in life was, as any 22-year-old does. And I’m in awe of how much time he spent writing pages upon pages of stories and philosophical ramblings to me about life. And the best emails usually had a time stamp of 1 or 2 in the morning, probably after he’d snuck a few beers in the basement while sitting at his computer, after my mom had gone to bed.
Which, funnily enough, is exactly how I wrote this eulogy last night.
Just to give you an example of the kinds of things he wrote to me at 2 am, I found an old email my dad sent in early 2001 that started with these two lines:
“Ponder this: A person’s value system is the sum total of their actions. A person’s words, thoughts, decisions, promises have no value until they act upon them.
Ponder this: You can’t help if a bird happens to land on your head, but you don’t have to let it linger while it builds a nest.”
Yeah, I have no idea about that last one either.
But the first one about a person being the sum total of their actions reminds me of a story my mom told me about Dad, which was typical of the kind of person he was.
It happened on a night when they’d driven to the Albany-Rensselaer train station to pick up one of their tenants, who was arriving to the States for the first time from the Middle East. The guy had written to my dad, after he’d reserved his apartment, asking how he could get from the train station in Albany to the building on Morris Street. And Dad immediately wrote back to the guy and said he’d be happy to pick him up and bring him to the apartment himself, no matter how late.
They arrived to the apartments with their new tenant around 10 pm and as they pulled up to the building, my dad overheard two girls speaking in a foreign accent on the street, arguing with a taxi driver about going somewhere that was going to cost them over $100, which they said they couldn’t afford. My dad heard them say they were going to go sleep in the train station for the night, so he motioned to my mother for help.
As my dad took his new tenant inside the building, he said to my mother, “I think those two girls over there are in trouble. Go over and see where it is they’re trying to get to.” And he did that because he felt that, for two young girls, being approached by a strange man on the street late at night might be frightening. But if he sent my mother over to talk to them, they might feel more comfortable accepting help.
So my mother went over to the girls, and it turns out they were visiting the States from Germany and they had arrived to New York City for some kind of art convention. And since they had a few days off, they decided to go to an event that was happening in a town somewhere in New York. And not having been to the States before, they thought, “How big could New York be?” So they boarded a train to Albany and figured they could get anywhere they needed to go by taxi. Except they were trying to get to Binghamton, New York.
Now, as you know, Binghamton is about 2 hours away from Albany. But my dad didn’t even flinch. He decided he couldn’t just leave these two girls stranded in Albany for the night, so he said he’d drive them to where they needed to go, no matter how far.
So my dad and my mom hopped in their van with the two grateful German girls and drove all the way to Binghamton at 10:30 at night and then drove home again, getting back home around 3 in the morning, undoubtedly swapping stories and chatting about Germany as they drove.
That was the kind of guy my dad was.
So when I think back to those pieces of wisdom my dad wrote when he said, “A person’s value system is the sum total of their actions,” and I look at the example he set for me in life, I see his actions and the impact his actions had on me and the lives of so many around him.
If he was housing people in his apartments, he made them the kinds of homes he would want to live in, not just the kinds of homes he could rent. He did not speak empty words or promises – if he said he would help you, it’s because he was already mentally searching for the part or tool you needed to fix your problem or he was offering to come and fix the problem himself. He lived to do things for others, to help others and the sum total of his actions is so large that I will spend the rest of my life trying to live up to it.
I often wrote to my dad while I was in the Peace Corps in Russia, questioning whether I was actually making a difference by teaching English poorly with no training or experience to speak of, while questioning what it is I was meant to do with my life and how I was supposed to figure that out.
And my dad wrote this back to me:
“We all ponder the question of ‘do I make a difference’ and what is my ‘worth’. Sometimes I think that hindsight gives a clearer insight into that question. We would all like to think that we have some great purpose. But perhaps the greatest mark we make is to help our ‘brother’ when he stumbles, and never put a stumbling block in the way of another.”
And that is the mark my father has left on me. Through his presence and his actions, and from meeting the many people whose lives he’s touched with a smile, a story or some assistance, I have seen the effect one person can have when they strive in whatever they do in life to help those around them and to not stand in the way of another.
He was my pillar to lean on when I needed support and he was my pedestal to stand on when I struggled to believe in myself. My father is the sum total of a lifetime of incredible actions, and that is why his loss is felt so greatly.