by Robert White
Christmas is almost here, and it was my father’s favorite time of year. This time also marks two years since his cancer won. My mourning for him is usually a few storms of emotion around this time of year in an otherwise blank sky of droning workdays and busy tasks.
Recently, I’ve had my head stuck in writing and performing, and my father seems to be in the background of all my thoughts, quietly sitting with one leg draped over the other and biting his fingernails. I think he would be very proud of me over the last few months, and I think It helps me mourn him better to be in a good place. This is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral in September of 2007.
I would like to start by speaking for my mother, my sister, my aunt, and the rest of my family by thanking all of you for being so supportive through this.
I always had the feeling Dad never expected to make it to be an old man. After all, his father before him died in his early fifties suddenly and surprisingly of a heart attack when my dad was only 29. The night before, my dad had meant to call him to catch up, but didn’t. It was one of his biggest regrets.
Everyone in my family will remember his frequent phrase “Now remember this, in case I get hit by a bus.” (Notice he never said ‘corvette.’) When he said this, I thought he was being morbid and I hated that phrase. Over time I began to realize that my dad felt his major role was as a protector and teacher to us, and it was an important lesson: time is our most valuable gift and the next moment is not guaranteed.
The bus that got him was not run by Marta, but it had the same blindsiding affect. It was a rare form of melanoma. They still don’t know how it happened, and my dad spent almost a year fighting back with jagged teeth till he couldn’t fight any longer.
Dad was expecting his heart to be his weakness, you see, which is why he ran half marathons, fought obesity, and took aspirin everyday. But he couldn’t plan for cancer. And this was one of the hardest parts of his battle. My father didn’t just happen to have a talent for financial planning and spreadsheets. He lived it. He literally wrote his own obituary for the paper. And near the end, he proved himself the fourth writer in the immediate family when he composed a powerful essay about his personal struggle with cancer treatment for a book of reflections by cancer patients.
My dad’s passions were deep—if he felt anything, he felt it greatly– and you could see how these passions were not just tied to his faith, but braided with it. He had a well of faith. When his struggle began, I had the feeling he looked down in the darkness of that well and feared it was empty. A year later, though, he was still drawing from it by the bucketfull every minute. And so were we.
“Don’t give up on God, God never gave up on me,” he told my mother throughout his fight.
As with most ends, there are blessings beneath the surface: My father had a long time to say goodbye, and I personally had some of the best memories I’ve ever had from the time we’ve spent together over the last few months. And, going back to his most important lesson about time, my father knew its value.
Dad embodied Horace’s poem:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
he who can call today his own:
he who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul, or rain or shine
the joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
As long as I have known him, my father never wasted a moment of his life. They probably say that at a lot of funerals, but anyone who knew my father or drove too slowly in front of him will know how true that statement is. Perhaps it’s yet another reason to celebrate his life—he lived, thought, and felt in a life more than most who will die in their nineties. My grandmother always said my dad was born forty years old. If that’s true, then in spirit he lived to be a healthy 98.
Whenever I realize I will never see him again in this life, or fear that age will blur my memories of him, I will suddenly catch myself singing out loud to a Bruce Springsteen song with the wrong lyrics, or having a complete conversation with myself, or giving my sister a hard time, and realize that he’s very much alive in me and I’ll probably see a lot more of him personally than I’m expecting to in the years to come.
I have said that one of my father’s greatest passions was for teaching, particularly teaching others how to be as right as he thought he was all the time. At one point many years ago, he mentioned he wanted his tombstone to hold a list of his words of advice, under his general philosophy that there’s no need to waste the space. However, that was before he saw the church’s two line memorial plaques.
But now is the perfect time to mention a few of them, and to give them that genuine Bob White air, I may repeat each one immediately after I say it.
1. Brakes don’t stop your car, tires stop your car. Brakes stop the wheels, tires stop the car.
2. Who you marry will determine 90% of your happiness. Rarely does one hear advice that is both realistic and romantic.
3. Those who don’t plan for a successful financial future don’t have one.
4. His advice for every sixteen year old in the family: You know how to spell ‘car’? J-O-B.
5. All it takes to be successful in a job is to show up. On time. Ready to work.
6. Time is your greatest wealth.
7. Don’t worry about repaying me. Pay it forward.
I’d like to leave you with this one. “Don’t worry about repaying me. Pay it forward.” This is one he’s said to me personally several times in my life. It usually came after such sentences as “I promise I’ll repay you for that dentist bill, dad,” or “You really didn’t have to get me such a nice suit.”
No one in this sanctuary should worry that they owe my father something. If he did you a kindness, or touched you meaningfully, he didn’t want to be repaid. He would have rather seen someone else benefit from that than him.
It’s just the kind of man he was.