My father didn’t take very much too seriously.
That only sounds like a character flaw to those who are too serious.
Which isn’t to say he was flippant or didn’t care about serious matters — just that he was very happy, one of the happiest people I’ve ever known, actually. And part of the reason was because he didn’t take very much too seriously.
When someone leaves us, they obviously don’t leave us fully, their essence lingers like, well, a ghost. But that feeling you get when they come to mind is usually warm and fuzzy if also sad, not eerie. And that feeling someone leaves us with — much more memorable and long lasting than any one thing they did or said — is their legacy.
And Dad’s legacy is one of happiness. He reminded us to let the rain roll off our back. That difficult moments would heal with time. That it’s okay to sometimes worship before an altar of self-interest — as long as you don’t sacrifice others’ happiness on that altar.
And the things he was skilled at — hacking solutions to life’s annoying bits, cajoling you into doing something like he was a Congressional deal maker, skiing, teaching skiing, piano, playing Hearts, telling stories — what all these activities of his have in common is that they didn’t just bring him immense, cackling joy — but they brought it to others in equal measure. His lifelong pursuit of life’s happiness was actually a form of contagious generosity. He made his part of the world a happier one. He made us happier.
That is part of what we’re going to miss. But it’s also what he leaves. A reminder that we all have an opportunity to better cultivate happiness in ourselves and others.
If my Uncle John were here today he would tell you an anecdote about his father’s funeral, how he, my Dad, their two brothers and my grandmother were in the limo between the church and the cemetery, reminding each other of stories about my grandfather, Allan. My uncle would tell you how they were making each other roar with laughter that day. The limo driver kept shooting them puzzled looks in the rearview mirror — what kind of strange family laughs so much at a funeral?
The answer is: This kind of family.
At my grandmother’s funeral people took turns on stage telling funny stories about her — one of which I heard for the first time there and remains one of my favorite about her ever since. It didn’t matter that it took place before I was born and I heard it after she died. It captured a real essence of her, and was very funny. And I have that forever now.
Rabbi Steve Leder, who wrote the book “The Beauty of What Remains,” once said:
“When I am gathered with a family to talk about their loved one who has died and prepare for the funeral, the minute I hear one of them crack a joke and everyone else laugh, I know they have internally made the decision to survive this loss,” he said. “To laugh is to affirm. This loss is painful, this loss is terrible, but it is survivable. I am going to walk through that valley of shadows. I’m not going to stay there forever.”
That’s us. We’re going to be okay, as painful as this loss is. So in that vein, please share your stories of Dad with others, me included. I want to hear them all.
And permit me to end on a brief, all ages-friendly story about my Dad.
At some point in the late 1980s he went to an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium with his friend Gary Gibson. They were sitting in the front row in an upper deck when Cal Ripken Jr. hit a pop fowl that landed on the roof of a press box in front of them.
Dad and Gary could see the ball at their feet, seemingly and maddeningly out of reach by a few feet.
But unable to just let it go, Dad said he was going to try to reach it, which Gary told him was a dangerous idea because it essentially meant climbing over the guard rail. Security would throw him out just for trying.
Dad was undaunted. A Cal Ripken-hit ball was worth the risk. He explained to Gary that he wasn’t going to climb onto the press box roof but rather lean over the railing, that he thought he could reach it. He asked Gary to hold on to his belt while I tried.
And over he leaned. Waaay over. Everyone in the section was watching the man do this foolish, perilous thing. And inches away from getting his hand on the ball, Gary holding onto his belt — his pants slipped — over his rear.
He was mooning the whole section. He was on the Jumbotron. The crowd collectively gasped.
And did he immediately pull himself back, in horror and embarrassment? No! The pants malfunction, plus his friend still holding on, gave him the extra inches to reach the otherwise unreachable ball. And when he came back over the rail, and pulled up his pants, he was victorious. That’s the kind of moment he lived for.
After the game he went to the gate where the players come out, and he got the ball signed by Ripken — but not before he told him how he got it — a baseball that he risked his life, and his dignity, over.
And then the next Christmas he gave me that autographed ball.
And then I lost that ball.
Here’s the final point I’ll leave you with. I may not have that baseball anymore. But I have something much more valuable: the story. And the happiness it evokes. And now you have it too.
I love you, Dad. And thank you for all the gifts you’ve left everyone who was lucky enough to know you. We’ll have them…always.