Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Eulogy for Dad

Mom and I are now at home after our weekend of remembrances for my Dad. We had calling hours and a family dinner yesterday, and Dad's memorial service and reception today. We all feel good about how things went, and we think everything was in a form and spirit that honored Dad.

As for me personally, it seems that my grief has moved into a new stage. After my first few days of grueling emotions and images, the last few have been of more measured, introspective moments of contemplation and inner solitude. I think I will continue to blog; while the journey alongside my Dad is now over, my journey into life without him now begins.

Here is the eulogy I wrote for Dad, delivered this afternoon by my childhood friend, Jeremy Andrews:

Eulogy for Gary Donald Francis
By his loving son, Robert Donald

On March 20, 2007, upon hearing the news that my Dad had cancer, I started writing his eulogy. I am still not sure why I began it that day. At the time, we knew little about his particular cancer, and we had no reason to believe it was not treatable. But I began writing. Although Dad had cheated death so many times before – from accidentally catching his shirt in a pipe threader to being electrocuted to his many health problems over the years – maybe somewhere deep within me I sensed that something was different this time. A word like “cancer” – with all its gravity and seriousness – can make one both introspective and retrospective. So on that day, I began thinking more intentionally about my Dad and how I could best honor him whenever the time came. That time came much too soon and unexpectedly for any of us, but I pray that my words will do justice to the Dad I love and miss so much.

In times like these, it is always tempting to see the past through rose-colored glasses. Everyone becomes a hero and a saint. We forget that – as one of my favorite authors, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote – “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Or as Martin Luther, Father of the Reformation, put it, we are all – mysteriously – sinners and saints at the same time. Even our Holy Book – says another of my favorite writers, Randall Balmer – is populated with scoundrels. Whatever else you care to say about folks like Jacob and Paul and David and Peter, the Bible presents them to us in all their messy humanity, three-dimensional beings who were quintessentially human, tangled tapestries of virtues and vices. So it is with my Dad.

Most readily apparent about Dad was that he was so well liked by so many. He was always the man about town, from morning coffee with the regulars to chatting with total strangers for hours. He could so quickly endear himself to people with his jokes and stories, like the way he would regularly entertain the ladies at the Tidioute Towers. Even his radiology nurse, when I was making some calls a few weeks ago, recognized Dad’s name instantly and told me that “he was such a character” and that “he always ate all their cookies.” That definitely sounds like Dad to me.

He was also always so quick to lend a helping hand, often not letting his left hand know what his right was doing. So many times in the last few days, people have approached me and said that Dad helped them with this or that, often going the extra mile to help or doing something extra thoughtful and special. And what’s more, I think often no one knew about it but him and them.

Dad also always looked out so much for Mom, Beth and me. He was so devoted to us kids getting good educations so that we wouldn’t have to work hard with our hands like he had to. Each year, he made sure Beth and I had the right teachers and all the books and supplies we needed, and I know it grieved him that he couldn’t pay for our college educations. And in recent months, he was so concerned that Mom would be okay once he was gone, so he wrote his will and made his funeral arrangements and even insisted she start pumping her own gas!

I have many other fond memories. I remember Dad talking with me about He-Man or some silly thing to distract me from the pain of getting a couple stitches in my arm as a boy. I remember doing my major 9th grade science project with Dad on wastewater treatment since he worked at Pleasantville’s wastewater facility in those days. (And I never let him forget that I had the chance to do my project with a really cute girl about the rainforest, but instead, I chose Dad and wastewater treatment. But I always knew I made the right choice.) And I remember many days of hunting together, including him spending a couple days helping me track my first deer, which I had only managed to wound before it wove its way all over northwestern Pennsylvania. And there were also all those years of his involvement with me in Boy Scouts, from his leading us on a trip to Canada to his supervision of my Eagle Scout project.

A lot of my memories of Dad revolve around work. As a boy, I accompanied him on his rounds on John Cubbon’s oil leases. He let me do my first driving on those lease roads, advancing the truck a hundred feet at a time as we cut back overgrown brush. Dad also had me climb up onto the large, rusty oil holding tanks to check the oil level using the longest ruler I had ever seen. And every work day, Dad loved to take a mid-morning break for a small snack and chocolate milk – mixed half and half with white – straight from the carton. He gave me guidance when I worked construction for a summer in college, and he did the same when I redid my room at our old house. And he made my lunch and drove me to work every morning the summer I worked at the Titusville Dairy. I never quite took after him and his jack-of-all-trades nature, but I so very much respected his many skills and hats, from electrician to contractor to mechanic to woodworker.

Dad was also quite a dreamer. He always played the lottery, hoping to win so that he could help Beth and me with our school debts and finally get Mom and him on solid financial ground. In fact, he bought two lottery tickets at Pat’s the day before he died, which I checked the morning after he left us. Unfortunately, still no jackpot, but I am keeping those tickets.

But maybe the thing I loved most about my Dad was his hands. To me, his hands represented so much about him. He worked hard with his hands all his life, and they were thick-skinned and strong while still sensitive and gentle. It was with those hands that he taught me a solid work ethic, the value of a hard day’s work with sweat on your brow, and the respect of working with one’s hands to make a living. Those hands also assembled my toys, bound up my wounds, and clapped for my accomplishments, and they were always good for a firm handshake whenever I left home for destinations unknown.

But despite all these good memories and traits, I also look at my Dad with very sympathetic eyes, because he was also a man of sorrows and insecurities. His life had its seemingly unfair share of disappointments and traumas – a divorce and estrangement from two daughters, three years of combat military service about which he rarely talked, constant financial pressures and stresses, and business plans unfulfilled. In many ways, I think his life didn’t unfold quite as he had planned, and I think that was especially hard for him.

And despite his friendliness and out-going nature, deep down he was an insecure and highly sensitive man. He always felt inferior to others, including his wife and children, because he never earned a college degree. While we always saw him as smart and well-read, I am not sure he ever gave himself such credit. And I think that sometimes, his willingness to help out so many people came from a simple desire to be liked and affirmed, to be valuable and useful. He was those very things, but again, I’m not sure he ever arrived at the kind of self-confidence I wish he had had. And despite his “macho man” exterior, his feelings were easily and often hurt, but one would be hard-pressed to know since he most often internalized it, thus feeding his own insecurities and self-doubt.

Talking with Dad in March, just after his diagnosis, he told me that he feels that he’d made some amends in the last 20 years for mistakes earlier in life, and I’d also like to think that maybe he overcame some of his insecurities during his final few years in Tidioute. Mom jokes that while he was always “Faith’s husband” in Pleasantville, she became “Gary’s wife” in Tidioute. He was so known and loved here, and I know he felt so at home in this town and especially in Smokey’s shop, which he credited with giving him an extra 18 months of life. I like to think that his last few years were some of his happiest, which also makes it so tough to lose him when we did.

Dad often commended me by saying, “Ya done good, boy!” Now that he’s gone, I fear that I didn’t tell him that enough over the years. I often told him I loved him, and I always knew that he was proud of me. He said last summer that his kids were the good that he has done in the world, and it will be us who make this planet a little better place on his behalf. While I hope that is true, I want him to know now – if he never felt this before – that I am proud of HIM, too. I am proud to be the son of Gary Donald Francis. I hope he knows that. Dad, if you can hear us now, from where you are, I want you to know that I am proud of you and proud to be your son. And more than that, we are all proud of you. You were taken from us far too soon, and it is still hard for me to fathom that you are really gone. I keep expecting to walk into the apartment and see you sitting in your rocking chair or find you down at the river with a line in the water. You have left behind many grieving hearts, unaccomplished plans, and unfilled furniture orders. But for the 64 years you were given, from the deepest place in my heart, I say, “Ya done good, Dad!”

I love you and miss you, and I pray that we’ll be united again someday.


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