Probably one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do was speak at my father's funeral. I spent the week leading up to it preparing a video tribute, and writing my speech, so when the moment came to get up and speak, I was overcome with emotion. I've spoken at funerals before. And throughout my life I have been fortunate enough to do everything from riding my bicycle from LA to NY, to photographing some of America's biggest stars. I've even held my own at the dinner table with a bunch of hard core Republicans during election time. But nothing I have done could have prepared me for saying a few words at my own father's funeral.
My brother and sister both asked that I sit next to mom. During the prelude, Dad asked that they play "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi" and the IU Fight Song, among five other songs he wanted to have played at his own funeral. Our choir director decided to surprise my mother by having her husband, who was also a Sigma Chi, sing the actual words to "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." It was at this point that the floodgates were opened, and the death of my father became a harsh reality.
I rubbed my mother's back, and offered her some Kleenex as she continued to sob. The entire time, I was trying to keep from crying myself, knowing that I had to get up soon to speak. My sister had our nephew Jordan read what she had written on her behalf. I'm starting to think that was probably a pretty good idea. Wish I had thought of it!
A little over 22 years ago, my father's sister, Virginia, passed away. On the day of her funeral, the minister told a story about something she had done that nobody else in our family knew about.
Breathe ... Just breathe...
Apparently, back in the 60s, she was commissioned to paint a mural in the basement of her church of Jesus surrounded by children. According to the minister, the church where she was commissioned to paint this mural, burnt down in the 70s. The entire church was destroyed, except for the wall where my aunt painted this mural. So when they re-built the church, they ended up building the entire church around this mural... The minister then invited those of us who had not seen what she had done to walk downstairs and take a look at her painting.
Alright. Well, my brother is smiling... So far so good!
Unfortunately for us, my father did not have an artistic bone in his body. So there aren't any murals I can invite you to look at.
Thank God people laughed! Dad would have liked that... God I miss him!
But there are two things that my father and his sister did share: They were constantly doing things for others, and neither one of them did it for the recognition. As many peopleÉ
And the first wave of emotion just hit me. ... Wow! Wow ...
As many people here can attest, dad had this uncanny ability to make people feel welcome as they walked into our church. "Thank you so much for coming here! I'm glad you could join us!" And if he didn't know who you were, he would write down your name and number, and give you a call later on in the day.
So instead of inviting you to take a look at a mural in the basement of a church, I would invite each of you to stand up, and greet the person next to you in his honor ... And if you don't know their name, find out what it is, and let them know how happy you are to see them!
Seriously, one of the best ideas I came up with was to have people greet one another in the middle of my speech. It gave me time to collect my thoughts, and to hug a couple of people in the process.
For a little over10 years, my father was the head usher at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fishers Indiana. In the early days, before we had an actual building to call our own, we met in the basement of Shirley Brother's Funeral Home, followed by Conner Prairie, and finally Hamilton Southeastern High School before having our very first service at our current location on Christmas Eve of 1997. So for the four years prior to this time, dad's job involved arriving an hour early to set up chairs, and tearing them down after the service — placing them in a trailer where they stayed till the following week. It also meant lining up ushers and greeters for every service, and calling them the night before to remind them of their duties. On days when people cancelled out on him at the last minute, he called on his more reliable ushers and greeters for back up.
But as I mentioned, he didn't do it for the recognition. He volunteered to help out in this way because it needed to be done, and it was something that he was good at. Still, his favorite part of the job, and the part he excelled at, was greeting people as they entered and left our church. For the entire time he did this, whenever we had a new members class, dad was one of the first things people mentioned when they said why they were thinking of joining our church. He would shrug it off as if it was no big deal, and then ask the people who mentioned his name if they would be willing to usher or greet the following week.
It wasn't until dad started to lose his memory, and could no longer remember the names of people he had known for years, that he resigned from his position as head usher. It embarrassed him that he could no longer remember people's names, and he apparently confided to mom, "Perhaps God is punishing me for taking such pride in knowing who people are." I, for one, refuse to believe that God is that vindictive. Rather, I believe He was giving others a chance to step up to the plate, and repay my father for all he had done for them. And boy did they ever! Our minister said it best when he said, "I have never been so proud of our church family as I have these past couple of years." During that time, they did everything from build a ramp in our garage for my father's wheelchair, to delivering meals, and making a Valentine's Dinner for my mom and dad that mom and I will never forget.
It's time. Please sit down so I can finish saying what I came here to say...
Perhaps one of the best decisions I ever made in my 50 years of living, was to move in with my parents two years ago this November, to help care for my father.
Holy Mother of God! I don't know if it was seeing my father's casket in front of me, or the reality of the situation, but those words in particular took my breath away...
Mom and I wanted to keep him out of a nursing home for as long as humanly possible, and I thank God that we did. But it became clear that if he was to fall, there was nothing mom could do about it... so that's where I came in.
My main job during this time was to help walk dad from one room to the next, and to help get him ready for bed. And for anyone who has worked with someone who has Alzheimer's, you already know that nighttime is one of the worst times of day. He cussed me out like nobody's business! And for anyone who knows my father, you KNOW that this is completely out of character!
Growing up, the worst thing to ever come out of his mouth was "Golly Ned!" To this day, Bob, Beth and I have no clue who Ned was; but we knew that any time we heard his name used in vain, we were in trouble - me especially.
So dad used words I never heard come out of his mouth before, the entire time as I was helping him put on his pajamas, or while I was slipping on his slippers. And yet, no matter how much he cussed me out while we were doing these things, by the time I tucked him into bed, turned out the lights, and was getting ready to walk out his bedroom door, he always said the same thing, "Thanks so much for helping me... I love you!" "I love you too, DadÉ Good night."
It was one thing to write those words for my very first blog of "Raising Dad."but completely different to say them out loud at his funeral.
On January 13, 1994, I was sleeping on a cot next to Mark Wright in St. Vincent's Hospice Center when the nurse woke me to let me know he had taken his last breath. I woke up only moments before thinking that he had stopped breathing, only to be relieved to see him breath once more. Shortly after she woke me, I called up all of his family members to let them know, hanging up on his father when he started to thank me. I then re-gained my composure before calling my own father to let him know. It was a little after 3 in the morning, and yet my own father thanked me for calling him, and managed to say how much he loved me before I hung up on him as well — not out of anger, but because I broke down and cried the moment he said he loved me.
That same exact tidal wave of emotion, of wanting to break down and cry, and "hang up" on what I had written and the people standing in front of me, rushed over me as I said those words, "Thanks so much for helping me... I love you!" I love you too, dad ... and it's killing me to know that I am never going to hear you say those words again.
Breathe. ... just breathe!
Anyone who knew my father, knows that he loved to flirt! Some guys golf, other guys drive fancy cars. ... Dad just LOVED to flirt! It was one of his favorite pastimes! Whether it was with Sima from Starbucks, or Carolyn from New Hope, it was what kept him going on a daily basis.
About a year ago, mom was worried that dad may be coming down with pneumonia, so we took him to the emergency room "just to make sure". As fate would have it, we ended up having a female doctor, and dad flirted with her the entire time! I finally just turned to mom and said, "Seriously mom ... The day he stops flirting, THAT'S the day we need to worry!"
Fortunately for us, and for mom especially, after 59 years of marriage, one of my father's favorite people to flirt with has always been my mother.
the emotions of the moment hit me like a ton of bricks as I looked at my mom ...
"Look away... Look away... Oh God, not him... Anyone but him..."
Sitting out in the sanctuary, among the many mourners who came to pay their respects at my father's funeral, was the senior pastor from the church where I grew up. My father was on the search committee that found this particular minister, much in the same way that I was on the search committee years later that found the minister we currently have at New Hope.
Around December of 1990, the senior pastor of the church I grew up in, tricked my father — and in turn, me — into outing our associate minister Howard Warren as being both HIV positive and gay. My father sat me down in the living room to let me know that Howard informed our session he was both of these things before turning in his resignation.
Dad was surprised when I breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Well it's about time!"
"Yeah, he told me about six months ago."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"It's not my place to say anything. He could lose his job if anyone was to find out. But if he's ready to start telling people, then good for him!"
Turns out I spoke too soon. Howard never said a word to the session about anything, let alone his status. Our pastor told my father he said those things, in hopes that I would confirm his suspicions. It wasn't until Howard confronted me a week later that I realized what I had done, and by that time it was too late. The session had already confronted Howard with the news of his status, and asked him to resign. Fortunately, the story does not stop there, and I thank God every day for the way this particular story ends.
About a month after Howard was asked to leave, I wrote a letter to our senior pastor: Howard was positive, the son of one of our members had already died from complications of AIDS, and I was aware of a couple of other members of our congregation who were also HIV positive; and yet, nothing was said from the pulpit about reaching out to those people, or their families, in their hour of need.
In order to make sure our minister read what I had written, I sent copies of the letter to members of the session, as well as a few prominent members of our congregation. But first, I sent a copy to my father. I wanted him to be the first to know what I had written. He called me at work the day he received my letter, and let me know that even though he did not agree with everything I had to say, he was proud of me for standing up for what I believe in. He also let me know that I had his blessing to send my letter to our minister.
It wasn't long before our minister let me know that he was exceptionally "busy" now that Howard was no longer working at our church, and the soonest he was able to meet with me about my letter was 2 months from the day of his call. I said, "That sounds great! I will see you then!" The very first words out of our minister's mouth when I met with him in his office were, "I think this is just one more thing you are doing to embarrass your father." I then told him how I sent a copy of the letter to my father first, and the things my father told me. "Oh." That was all he could say, "Oh."
Plan B. Our minister then insisted that if I was going to help out with our junior and senior high youth, I needed to set an example for the kids by sitting through his sermons. He had been the senior pastor of our church for 15 years at that point, and his sermons were all on a three-year cycle. But I wanted to continue working with our youth, so I agreed to listen to them for the fourth or fifth time.
It wasn't until the Sunday after my father's sister died that I decided enough was enough. I spent 30 minutes after the service trying to have a word with our pastor, while he kept trying to avoid me. When I finally had a chance to tell him the news, and how he might want to give my father a call, for a brief moment there was a look of relief on his face (as in, "Thank God, I thought you were going to bitch about my sermon"), followed by a look of concern and, "Thank you so much for telling me, I will be sure to give your father a call." I knew at that moment I was going to church for all of the wrong reasons, and needed to go somewhere else.
My father was a "big picture" kind of guy. And in the overall scheme of things, everything worked out precisely the way it was supposed to. Howard Warren was friends with the head of the Presbytery —whose son was also HIV positive — and who insisted our church pay for Howard to work for a minimum of two years as the head of pastoral care at the Damien Center. Howard FLOURISHED in his new career, and worked there for 10 years before he passed away. Shortly after I left the church, our minister encouraged my parents to check out this new church that was starting out in the basement of a funeral home. By the time they moved from the funeral home to Conner Prairie, my parents convinced me to check out this new church as well, and I haven't looked back since. So, despite all of the manipulation, lies, and un-Christian like behavior that led to this pivotal moment in our lives, God's Master Plan prevailed. Seeing our former senior pastor at my father's funeral, just reminded me of how fortunate my family has been to spend the last 20 years of our lives at this new church in Fishers.
And finally, as several members of our congregation have pointed out to me: Dad didn't die. He was promoted to Head Usher up in Heaven. So when our time comes to walk thru the Pearly Gates, he will be the first one to greet us and say, "Thank you for coming! I am so glad that you're here!"
Holy Crap! That was toughÉ I was personally surprised at how emotional the service was. Especially when my brother spoke shortly after me. He's a comedian, so I expected to laugh; but I did not expect to cry. As he mentioned a couple of times in his speech, "the emotions come in waves, and you never know when the next one is going to hit you."
The question I probably got the most the day of my father's funeral was "What do you plan to do now that he's gone?" Honestly, I have no idea. He has been such a huge part of my life these last couple of years, I'm not sure what I'm going to do. My initial thought is to write an actual book about our time together, using it as both therapy, and a way to take my life in a different direction. Mostly I'm hoping that writing a book will be the best possible way to say goodbye to the man I loved. I'm also thinking a lot about traveling to different parts of the world before the inevitable happens, and it's time to start working on "Raising Mom." But right now, all I really want to do is get a good night's sleep, and work on living up to the legacy that is my father. From that standpoint, the journey for me has just begun...