From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

The Obituary

Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Our family knew when dad was dying. He had a brain tumor. Since I was the oldest of the four children and a novice writer, I was going to do an obituary that would be a true masterpiece. A tribute to a simple man whom I wanted to have more than a one- or two-paragraph passing. Not the typical “he was born here, lived there and will be buried somewhere else” kind of obituary. I wanted people who read obituaries to know who my father was when he passed away. He was extraordinary to us. I wanted people to know that.

But when I sat down, the words did not come easily. How would I describe this gentle man whose Austrian-Hungarian parents had come to America, like so many others, to seek peace and prosperity? How would I write, in such a short space, of how my dad never finished grade school because he became the sole supporter of the family in his early life? How he awoke in the wee hours of the morning to work on a milk truck or in a bakery before he could even consider going to school. The Depression was his classroom. He made the most of it.

And then, when he did become a young man, there was another “war to end all wars” in progress. His country said he could not fight overseas because his family needed him. His brothers went instead, one becoming a decorated soldier. Dad happily signed on as a cook on troop trains. He wanted to do his part. On one of those many trips he took during the 1940s, he stepped off a train on a cold, snowy night in the small town of Oswego, New York. He lost his heart there and married my mother soon thereafter.

How would I describe in one short column of cold type how he worked two, sometimes three, jobs to maintain a growing family, always finding his way back to being a cook, a chef, something he enjoyed immensely? Should I tell how he passed up an offer to work in an elegant restaurant in New York City because his family was rooted in a small upstate town? Did he ever regret not going? No one knew because he was not a complainer. He didn’t dwell on what might have been.

Though we probably hadn’t told him very often, I wanted to tell the world how he was a great father. How he could discipline without striking a blow. He had hit me only once when I was very young and ran in front of a car. He left a mark. He never touched any of his children again. He didn’t need to. When Dad did get angry, his message was quite evident.

Where do I mention about how he always stood by us? How he was proud of whatever small achievement we accomplished growing up. How, although his life had its miseries, his smile and dry sense of humor filled a room as his eyes sparkled with life.

How do I tell those people reading about his death that his life was not one of fame or great wealth, but a simple one that came to an end too soon for all of us? How he showed us by example. How he did whatever job he had with pride and dedication. Do I put in the story about him trudging through a “lake-effect” blizzard from our home to the state college several miles from our house so he could make sure the students were fed in the dining hall he managed? Where do I tell about his friendships with people of any race or religion, as long as they were honest? He accepted anyone, even though it wasn’t the most popular ideology of the day.

And when a spinal tumor shut down his legs after twenty-seven years of employment, he quietly took up residence in a wheelchair, which was not a burden to him, just another part of his life. He wheeled proudly to my college graduation and alongside me later when I married. And when that marriage fell apart, he was there, too, for quiet comfort. There was no criticism.

How would I tell the reader that he raised my only daughter so lovingly from that wheelchair while I went back to work three weeks after she was born? He was a magnificent babysitter. There wasn’t a fussy baby who didn’t become quiet when she sat on Dad’s lap. He’d leave a legacy of calm and content.

When an alert physician finally diagnosed his first debilitating ailment as a small spinal tumor, he readily agreed to the six-hour-plus operation if it meant standing and walking again. I wanted to write about our joy when the doctor tapped the bottom of his feet in that hospital bed and there was feeling again. And, although he never walked totally unassisted again, he was extremely grateful for the new mobility. And he used every minute of his extended life.

Should I write, too, that cancer, probably from those early years of many unfiltered cigarettes, would finally be the unbeatable foe? How he gradually lost the ability to eat, to speak and how he’d write us notes on the same pad on which he kept his crossword puzzle words? (Despite his lack of education, he did difficult crossword puzzles, writing down the words he didn’t know and looking up their meaning in the dictionary.) Should I mention that my father would never have considered, had he lived today, a lawsuit against a tobacco company? He accepted the responsibility of his actions throughout his life. It would never have occurred to him to do otherwise or to blame someone else for something he had done.

He was taken to the veterans hospital in Syracuse, New York, just a few days before my birthday in December 1985. He asked to come home to die in early January, and on the twenty-first of that month, he did so, in the old house where he had lived happily for over thirty-five years.

I had finished my obituary by then. My brothers and sister had already picked out the “pine box” he always laughed about being buried in. The state of New York wouldn’t let us put it under the spreading maple tree out in the backyard, but he didn’t know that. What I had written appeared in the local newspapers. I never was satisfied with it. It didn’t come anywhere near what I had envisioned. I never felt it conveyed what my dad’s life had been like and what his passing meant. It just couldn’t be put in that one article.

I have a copy of a memento the newspapers provided with his obituary and photo on one side, and a prayer on the other. I have it tucked alongside a mirror. I look at it often, that feeble attempt at what I wanted to be my best piece of writing.

Several years after his passing, my daughter brought home an essay done in elementary school about how her grandpa’s passing had affected her. It was much better than my meager words, I thought. And then, a few months ago, I met a man who had worked with my dad many years ago. He said, “You know, I still miss your father. He was like a dad to many of us growing up. He was a great guy. His sense of humor . . . “ His voice trailed away as we both choked back tears.

Suddenly, it hit me after all these years. I didn’t need to create a masterpiece to tell the world about my dad when he died. He had created his own wonderful masterpiece while he lived. I could never put it into words. I didn’t have to. He had said it all quite eloquently.

Carol Haynes

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