One week ago, I had the great honor of delivering this eulogy to my family:
Lately, I’ve been listening over and over to a Foo Fighters song. I would have suggested it as one of the tracks for today’s background music loop, but…it’s a Foo Fighters song. Not Dad’s style of music, but still relevant.
It’s called “My Hero” and the gist is that not all heroes wear capes; real heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To figure out whether that describes Dad, I started a list of the things he did over the years.
In doing so, I noticed a pattern – one that might show him as a conflicted hero or, in softer terms, an enigmatic one. Dad was a man of dichotomies, or paradoxes, or oxymorons. He might have said he had eight oxymorons, so I’m more inclined to go with “dichotomies.” A lot of Dad’s personality traits could be paired as polar opposites.
For example, he was stoic, but loving. Aloof, yet affectionate. Detached, but dedicated. Dad guarded his feelings like a Scotsman guards his whiskey – but we all knew they were there. His love for his family was evident, even when he had a hard time putting it into words.
When Dad dropped me off at college the first time, he finished helping me move into my dorm room and the inevitable time came for him to leave. I could feel the emotions charging the air as the big moment loomed. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and said, “Well, Daniel, we’re going to miss you. But it’s not like you’re going away to jail or something.” Thanks for sparing me that emotional tidal wave, Dad.
Remember how Mom would ask, “Do you love me, Dear?” and he’d roll his eyes and answer in an intentionally unconvincing voice as dry as a martini, “Madly, Dear. Madly.” But we knew. Dad would have walked to the moon for Mom.
He also loved all of us. And I mean a fierce, abiding love. He wanted what was best for us. He protected us, he helped us, and he gave us everything he could. Because of the next dichotomy.
Dad was thrifty, but generous. We never wanted for anything. We had a house, food, transportation, pets – in short, we had a home. And we had the thing every kid wants – stuff. Some stuff was handed down…and none of it was brand-name. But all of it turned out to be invaluable.
Dad had a way of finding little gifts that resonated with each of us, like souvenirs from Edmund Scientific or beachside bookstores.
And he was generous with his time. All of those hours behind the wheel, hauling us on vacations – the toughest being the two-day drives to Colorado. He must have been exhausted, but he always took us to the motel pool after we’d finally stopped for the night.
He went to our games, campouts, plays, and other events. He taught eight kids to drive. I remember him driving me across the river to Brunswick Library every Saturday, letting me take my time to browse and find a good supply of books and records for the week.
At home, he might have been napping, reading his paper, or tinkering with his equipment in the basement, but he always stopped immediately if one of us needed even the smallest thing – and he welcomed the interruptions cheerfully.
Even for Dennis. That cat hated every human but Dad, who would put aside his newspaper when Dennis settled down on top of him on the living room couch every evening – at least, until he started burrowing into Dad’s chest.
That’s when another dichotomy would present itself – Dad was quiet, but expressive. And while his off-color phrases during moments of stress were certainly creative, he was expressive in other ways. He wrote poetry. He painted. He sang to us.
Dad was averse to change, but he was an explorer. One could argue that as a physicist, he explored at the molecular level. But he also embarked on a lot of real-world journeys, often returning from exotic places with new traditions. Good-bye, Scotch; hello, Mai Tais!
So yes, he could embrace new things. He once hiked into the middle of a thunderstorm on Long’s Peak, climbing the Boulder Field at around 13,000 feet as the storm raging all around him. That’s the heart of an adventurer!
Because Dad was nervous, but self-assured. He worried about his health, and was constantly taking vitamins and other remedies. I remember him quipping that Nana Bain was the reason that, no matter how old he got, he still chewed his fingernails to the nubs. But he wasn’t meek; he knew what he was capable of, and confident in that.
Yet despite his confidence, he was utterly devoid of vanity. Dad didn’t care one iota what people thought of his looks or his style; he was steadfast in clinging to his clip-on bowties, plaid polyester slacks, and self-cut hair. He knew who he was, and had little worse for those who mocked him; he did not suffer fools lightly.
Because Dad could be impatient…but he loved to teach. Not for a career, but as a father. He taught us a lot, which required patience in droves. Science, astronomy, history, math – just about everything except the birds and the bees. I was a freshman in high school the Saturday he came into my room with a library book about that topic. He handed it to me and told me to read through it and let him know if I had any questions. To this day, I wish I had retorted, “Dad, I’m fourteen; let me know if you have any questions.”
Dad’s patience was more likely to be taxed by things like waiting too long at a restaurant, or getting stuck in traffic. Because if there was one thing Dad couldn’t stand, it was wasting time…yet he could sit for hours on end, staring at a chess board without moving. If ever a game required patience, it’s chess. And he excelled at it.
He won tournaments, he had a rating just below Master, he led clubs, he taught local youth how to play, and he once started a verbal game with a colleague in the car next to him during rush hour. They shouted their moves to one another and tracked the game in their heads through several red lights on Route 7.
Chess was Dad’s passion. I think he taught it to all of his kids, as well as a few grandkids. My sons liked asking him to play whenever we visited. I did not.
I played from about age 5-17, but never beat him. There was one occasion when I managed to play him to a draw. He probably could have beaten me, but he agreed to a stalemate. That was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Because Dad was a brilliant, brilliant man. But he was also very silly. Here was a scientist, grounded in logic, who embraced the absurd. One minute he might be expounding on the qualities of light as a particle vs. as a wave; the next, he might break into a recitation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” or quote a favorite Clouseau-ism from the “Pink Panther” movies.
And while dancing is about as far from logic as you can get, he was known for his steps as well as his science. On the dancefloor or in the living room, Dad was the Twisting genius.
He was serious, but he had a sense of humor. He’s the one who introduced me to a lifelong love of Monty Python. He loved Jack Lemmon, laughing uproariously at characters who were often a lot like Dad himself. He wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself, or his situations.
When Nanny’s health was on the decline and everyone in the house was on pins and needles, Dad and Mom discovered The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s infamous “Chuckles the Clown” episode, laughing at the concept of death. For years afterward, he was likely to quote his favorite line from it: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
He had his fair share of corny Dad jokes, sure – Jesus Rodriguez and Moose Turd Pie come to mind – but his wit could also be razor-sharp and downright wicked. He swore me to secrecy when I discovered the incriminating document, but now I think the story can be told – at his office once, someone was trying to advance a really stupid idea, so Dad wrote an anonymous and hilariously scathing memo to ridicule the suggestion. He secretly left it on his boss’ desk, and the suggestion never got off the ground. This was the 1980s equivalent of what we would call trolling; he was ahead of his time!
Dad was introverted, but gregarious. He was the popular loner, the straight-laced partier. While he enjoyed his solitude, he was oddly good at socializing. And when he did, he was the life of the party. People loved him – from his teammates at work, to his neighbors, to Mom’s closest friends and their husbands.
He hit it off with everyone. At company picnics or neighborhood pig pickin’s, when people saw him coming, they’d shout “Walt!” like he was Norm from “Cheers.” He had this nerdy charisma that drew people to him. That’s what I’ll remember and cherish.
But perhaps Dad’s greatest dichotomy was: His time on earth was fleeting, but he left a long-lasting legacy. I’m referring, of course, to all of us. Eight kids. Twelve grandkids. Thirteen great-grandkids.
Last week, I added up the ages of his descendants, from his firstborn to his most recent great-grand. As of this moment, Dad (along with Mom) is responsible for more than 950 years of age in this family. Think about that – his current legacy is almost a full millennium of life, and that total is increasing daily. Granted, he had plenty of help from Mom, but what a legacy!
So, was Dad a hero? Was he a great man? The answer lies in one of Jack Lemmon’s later movies, called “Dad.” I’ve always loved the tagline from its poster: “Sometimes, the greatest man you ever meet…is the first one.”
Because yes, Dad was a great man. And yes, he was a hero – an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. And he has earned the right to rest with Mom in an extraordinary place.
Enjoy it, Dad. We’re going to miss you…but it’s not like you’ve gone away to jail or something.