Yesterday I buried my father.
To be exact, yesterday was the funeral for my father. It was with military honors, as he served four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War, mostly aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Newport News. Family and friends were in attendance, my younger brother as well as his older and younger brothers… rifles were fired, “Taps” was played and a flag was folded, which now sits on a shelf behind me as I write this. I exchanged my father in a box for that flag and a handful of empty rifle shells yesterday, December 13, 2012. He was 64 years old. Tomorrow would have been his 65th birthday.
He passed away at home sometime Sunday morning of heart failure, most likely brought on by a recent round of intensive chemotherapy. A diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia forced him to retire in June, although he never really got to enjoy his time out of work as most of his days were spent either in hospitals or clinics or else maintaining a regimen of tongue-twisting medications too numerous to count and planning for an uncertain future — which, this week, became suddenly very much certain.
His few and brief “good days” were spent, however, with family and friends, and he did make sure to do things he liked (and was physically able) to do. I got the opportunity to share time with him, and actually that was part of the reason that I moved back to Rhode Island from Texas after eight years away. I realize that many people don’t get to spend that kind of “extra” time with their family members before death takes them away, and for that I’m glad. Still, it’s hard to know that from now on I’ll be referring to my father in the past tense.
My dad was a man who lived his life the way he wanted. He didn’t care if it wasn’t up to other people’s standards, or if it was above them, his goal wasn’t to amass wealth or acquire land or purchase houses or expensive things. He wasn’t interested in impressing others. What he valued was his happiness, his freedom, his family and his friends. Those meant more to him than anything you could order online (not that I could ever get him to own a computer) or put on a credit card. Because in the end, they don’t amount to anything but stuff that you leave behind… stuff that won’t miss you when you’re gone — unlike us.
He used to say to me, when I would envision other places I thought were bigger and better than where I was, he would say “there’s nothing over there that you can’t get over here.” (And that is a direct quote. Of which he had many.) And of course since he was the dad and I was the son, he was wrong and I was right. And as things like that often go, I went off and looked for the things that were over there that I couldn’t get here. I’ll even admit that I found some of them.
But they were all just things. Just stuff. And I eventually came to realize that he was right, but not in the way I originally understood what he’d meant. Because what he should have said was “the things that are here, you won’t find over there.” Or anywhere, for that matter. Because here are the truly unique things… my history, my friends, my family… my father. And I could travel all over the country, all over the world, I could search the entire Universe and I wouldn’t ever find those things anywhere else. They were – they are – what matters, and he knew it.
Of course I wasn’t listening then. But I’m listening now. As most people one day realize, you remember the things that your parents said to you when you were younger but the meanings don’t often become clear for many years.
I’m glad my father taught me to appreciate the little things in life and the wonder of the world around me. He taught me that if you keep looking straight ahead, you’ll miss what’s down below or up above (and there’s some good stuff up there.) I’m glad he showed me that you don’t have to amass great wealth to be content and happy in this life. I’m glad he made me realize that you don’t have to do things the way others want; be yourself, and the people who still like you are your real friends. And I’m glad that I had some time to spend with my dad in the months since he fell sick. There was a point when I didn’t think that would be possible. But those few moments, whether it was watching the boats come in and go out down at the R.I. shore, having lunch at a cafe or just keeping him company during his stays at the hospital, those are times that I’m glad we got to have. Because we never really know when we may not get another.
Love you dad, I’ll miss you. You had a way with words and I’ll do my best to remember them all.
In memory of Stephen P. Major
December 15, 1947 – December 9, 2012