Monday, March 31, 2008

My Tribute to Dad

My Tribute to Dad
(as delivered at Dad’s 70th Birthday party- Easton Hilton, Columbus, OH- March 29, 2008)

When I sat down to think about this talk today, I knew I had to start somewhere. For those of you who haven’t done this, this is not an easy thing. How do you sum up the life of a man in a few short words? People are complex. Relationships are varied. Each of us relates to another in a slightly different way. We are all someone’s father or mother, brother or sister, husband or wife, friend, uncle or aunt. In each of those relationships we behave slightly differently or very differently. All of your know some aspect of my father that I don’t. And I know some aspect of him that you don’t. Even within our family, Brent’s relationship with Dad is not the same as mine. Brandon’s is different from Bridget’s. What can I say about the man that all of you can relate to? Given just a few minutes to speak, I had to pick one thing. I could write a book about my father. Maybe one day I will. But, I don’t think you’d want me to stand here and read it to you. I decided the one thing I could talk about was his commitment to duty, his unfailing willingness to do the right thing.

Duty. What comes to your mind when you hear the word? I’d say for many it’s patiotism. What you would do for your country. For many duty sounds like drudgery. Duty is something you have that makes you do what you don’t want to do. But, duty isn’t always drudgery. When I think of Dad, I think of a person who is a highly developed sense of duty. The sense of duty my father has is born out of love. Love for his family and love for his God. That type of duty is not drudgery.

As human beings we all take things for granted. It’s in our nature. To truly appreciate something, you have to have its opposite to compare it to. You cannot appreciate being warm unless you’ve been cold. You cannot appreciate having food unless you’ve been hungry. And, you cannot appreciate the things a father does for you unless you’ve seen a father who doesn’t do those things. You cannot appreciate a man who sacrifices until you’ve seen one who looks out for number one. To appreciate a dutiful person, you must compare him to someone who is, shall we say, not so dutiful.

Truly appreciating a man like my father is a little more difficult for those of us in this room. We have been born into a very special family. We see our mothers and fathers doing the things they need to do without question and without complaint. And, we take it for granted that all mothers and fathers are like that. As a child, I didn’t think of my family or my father as anything special. I thought all dads were perfect, just like my dad. It wasn’t until I was grown that I was able to truly see the other examples around me and to understand just how fortunate I was to have my father.

If we can use our imaginations, we can make those comparisons that allow us to appreciate what we have without actually going through another childhood. To recognize the value of what my father did for me doesn’t require me to be born to another father and experience his neglect. It just requires me to look around a little bit. And, having become a parent myself helps a great deal.

When I think of my father, I think of someone who was always there for me and for his family. He was always there for his church and for his God, too. Always. No hesitation. No exceptions. I’ll give you just a few quick examples.

My father taught me the importance of family togetherness and of being a part of a larger whole. Here is an example that on the surface might seem small. But, in reality it is larger than most people can even fathom. I remember my father being home for dinner every night. Right on time. We knew almost to the minute when he would walk through the door. Dad would get up early, get to work early, put his nose to the grindstone and get his tasks done so he could plan on leaving there and being home for us. Now, I compare that to families I see where they hardly ever share a meal. As Ty and I did premarital counseling, we’d tell our couples about the importance of something as simple as sharing that evening meal together. We were amazed at how many didn’t have that experience. Dinner, for us, was the time of day where everyone would come together and talk about their days- their challenges and their triumphs. Dad not only provided the food for the meal. And, many father think that is enough. He was there for it and for us. What seemed like such a simple thing to me then, a thing I took completely for granted, I now know is something of vital importance when it comes to building a family. After talking to dozens of couples over the years about this simple ritual I realize how many people missed out on this and how deeply it impacts their sense of being connected in a family. I pushed this hard in our counseling sessions. Every couple we counseled committed to try to make this a part of their lives even if it hadn’t been in their childhood. They could see how important it had been to me. I am grateful to Dad for putting us first all of those years. I’m sure he could have traveled more and done more things to get “promoted”. But, he always put family first. I saw this same value in myself when I worked in the corporate world and I have him to thank for that.

My father taught me about loyalty to my wife. In their, soon to be, 50 years of marriage, I never had a moment’s doubt that my father and mother would stay together. I’m sure they had their ups and downs. And, it’s not like I never heard a cross word between them. But, we just knew about my father’s commitment to those vows he had taken all of those years before. And we knew that, if it was humanly possible, he was going to stick with them. Growing up in a stable home was a blessing that a lot of people don’t have. I’m not saying he did it all on his own. He was blessed with a woman who took her duty just as seriously. And, as a result, they have been able to have a marriage that most people would envy and that anyone should be proud of. I’m happy to report that Ty and I are off to a good start with almost 18 years under our belts. And, I see the same sense of loyalty in my brothers. We have our father’s sense of duty to thank for that.

My father taught me about the importance of trust in God. I’ll never forget when they were about to wheel him back to his open heart surgery and the poor surgeon thought he had just a “regular Joe” on the gurney. He starts asking all the standard questions. But, then he asks Dad if he has any concerns. Who wouldn’t? He was just about to have his heart stopped and placed into the hands of a stranger. When you have your heart stopped, there’s always the chance it won’t start again. Any normal person would at least be concerned, have some fear. But, Dad said he knew that his fate was in not in the surgeon’s hands, it was in God’s hands. He had no fear. I watched him carefully as he spoke. I think the surgeon was just stunned. The surgeon and I both knew people say these things. They’re supposed to say these things. But, I could tell, and I think the surgeon could too, that with Dad the faith was true. It was sincere. Dad has an unwavering faith that God will take care of him. I’ve seen it play out time and time again.

My father taught me about the importance of serving something outside of your self. When I think about my father, one thing that always quickly comes to mind is how much work he has done for the church and for the schools he has volunteered with over the years. As a layperson, he has worked for the church harder than most people on the payroll. He has given his time and his money selflessly and consistently ever since I can remember. I find myself doing the same types of things. I blog to help people who are struggling like I did (do). I commit time to my church, Ty and I volunteer. Sometimes people ask me why I do it. I don’t really see it as a choice. Commitment to others Is just part of being human, to me. But, when I really think about it, I know that I have my father to thank for passing that along to me, too.

My father taught me the importance of being able to say “no” to your children. Wow., was Dad good at saying “no”. I remember growing up and thinking how mean my parents were. We didn’t get the BB gun we wanted. We didn’t get the mini-bike. My parents made me transfer schools when I just wanted to hang out with my friends. I distinctly remember them saying “no” and not making any excuses. They didn’t tell me we couldn’t afford it. They’d say “We can afford to buy you that. But, we don’t think it’s best for you.” They wanted me to learn the value of a dollar, the value of hard work and to know that in life you don’t always get everything you want. They also wanted me to learn that not everything I wanted was good for me. Now, I look back at what happened to the kids around me who got everything they wanted handed to them and where they ended up. I see how they never learned to work for things or save for things. I see how they never learned to respect the authority that we all have to live under at some point in our lives and struggle to hold a job or to advance in an organization that inevitably requires you to respect authority at some point.

My father’s sense of duty is a legacy he passed on to me almost silently and without my awareness. From my perspective, my father is a man of few words. Some of you may know another side of him. He didn’t sit down and lecture me on these things I’ve spoken about today. He just showed me. Whether he did it consciously or subconsciously I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. He lived them out.

I began reading Bill Cosby’s book “Come On People”. In case you haven’t read it, in the book, Bill is lecturing black people about what all of us in this room take to be “common sense”- staying out of jail, staying with your wife, taking care of your kids. Sadly, it’s much needed in our black community. And, it’s not just needed in the black community. Ty and I live in the ‘burbs of Cincinnati. We are constantly amazed at how people who should know better are raising their children. They give them everything they want. They don’t know the meaning of the word “no” (they being the children and the parents). The parents want to be their children’s best buddies. They travel constantly trying to “get ahead” while all their children really want is time with them. They don’t eat together because both the parents and the kids are overcommitted. Their children are turning out to be spoiled little brats who refuse to work, who can’t commit to anything for more than a week and who don’t have a clue what it means to sacrifice.

All of the things I’ve talked about so far seem to me like “common sense”. The older I get, the more I realize that “common sense” isn’t so common. What we so lightly refer to as common sense has to come from somewhere. Whenever, I find myself judging someone, I try to remember to look to their past. Where did they get their common sense? In many cases, you can trace their dysfunction right back to their home life. In my case, you can trace any success I’ve had in my career, with my family, in my community, or in my marriage right back to my father.

Cosby’s book is a good book. But, about half way through, I put the book down. I don’t need it. I know everything in that book and I knew it decades ago. I didn’t need a book to teach it to me, I had my father. Thanks for being there for us, Dad.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Eulogized Dad Yesterday

Tomorrow is Dad’s 70th birthday. To celebrate the occasion, he and Uncle Robert decided to throw themselves a birthday party. In his inimitable style, Uncle Robert pretty much took over the planning assisted by Mom. The party turned out to be almost 150 people for lunch at the Hilton in Easton. The “agenda” (can you believe an agenda for a birthday party?) included two songs-one by Steve Wicker one by Uncle Jack’s girls, a photographic review of Dad’s and Uncle Robert’s life, a tribute to Uncle Robert by Robin and a tribute to Dad by myself. So, I got to eulogize Dad while he is healthy and vibrant. Not an opportunity many people get. But, one that everyone should have a chance at.

Mom called me and asked me to give the tribute. I dutifully said “yes’. I was supposed to seek input from Brandon, Brent and Bridget. I learned the plan had been hatched by Uncle Robert who wanted Robin his eldest) to give a tribute to him. If Robin was going to give a tribute to Uncle Robert, then, of course, I had to give a tribute to Dad. I have to admit I viewed giving a tribute to Dad as a major challenge. It’s not like we have a tight relationship. What kind of ”mush“ was I going to put together to tell what a great man he is when I struggle with my relationship with him. When I finally got around to asking Brent, Brandon and Bridget for input, I got a ”hell no“ from Bridget (different words, same sentiment), a ”Brandon will say something“ from Brandon (yes, he referred to himself in the third person) and no reply at all from Brent. I did not hear anything else from Brandon. So, I proceeded on my own.

I called Robin up to see what she was going to say. If she was going to put together some grandiose ”This Is Your life“ type of thing, I couldn’t just slap something together. I had to tiptoe around this whole thing though. I didn’t know how Robin had taken being asked to give a tribute. Would she think it had been an honor or would she view it was being as awkward as I did. Surprisingly, Robin and I had a really good talk even thought we hadn’t talked in years. Her relationship with Uncle Robert is not entirely different than my relationship with Dad. We just speak different languages than our fathers. Robin was clueless about what she was going to do. But, I was reassured that it shouldn’t be anything that would embarrass me because I would pale in comparison. She was struggling with her assignment just as much as I was struggling with mine.

Robin gave me some very valuable advice. What we realized was that we were both putting way too much pressure on ourselves. We were projecting our expectations onto our fathers. Robin suggested we keep it simple and stick to the facts, not emotions. They were there for us. They were home. They had stable marriages. They had been faithful to their churches. They had no idea that we wanted so much more from our relationships. And, of course, the ”Tribute’ was no place to bring it up.

On Friday, the day before the party, I put together a talk that was very nice. I was actually quite surprised at how easily it flowed once I got started. There was nothing I had to lie about. I admire my father in so many ways (the ways I outlined in the talk). As I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth”, I’ve realized a couple of problems in our relationship. My father is way too stuck in roles. I don’t think it’s just in his role as father. But, that is the only role I can really evaluate because whenever he’s round me, he’s right in that character. One very telling thing he used to say when I was little was “I’m not your friend, I’m your father.” Truer words could never be spoken. In his zeal to not try to become my best buddy (something no parent should do) and to not neglect his duties as a father, he overcorrected and decided he could not have friendship with me at all. We’ve never been friends and now I realize we never will be. My problem with the relationship has been to expect him to be something he is not. He’s just a human being. The facts that he was born before I was and he is my parent doesn’t give him any special wisdom or insight nor does it mean that he has to be better at this relationship than I am. I want and expect him to do more than he is capable of doing. Learning to let that go (which I’m still working on) has reduced my anxiety and stress levels tremendously. Now I can relax and just allow him to be himself without trying to make him into something else.

Secretly, in spite of my protestations, I was glad to have the opportunity to sit Dad down and say some things to him I was afraid that I would never have the chance to say. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. But, what I realized is that I had to protest as part of my “role” as a stoic Smith. It’s a role I play all too well. I know that because when Ty’ mistakes my role for my true identity it upsets me. She always says that Brandon is different from Brent, Bridget and me, lumping me in with Brent and Bridget. Her take is that Brandon is the only one who would have stepped up and given the talk, voluntarily. The truth is probably too complex for her to understand and I should not be upset with her when she misreads me. The truth is I wanted to give that talk. I wished that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I was done and that some sort of dam between Dad and I would break and it would be the beginning of a new relationship between the two of us. But, I knew that wouldn’t happen and I could not get my hopes up. Robin encouraged me to give the talk for myself with no expectations of what would come of it and I tried to do that. But, it’s hard not to hope just a little.

The reality is when I gave the talk, it went over pretty well. I got a lot of head nods, a few laughs and some “Amens”. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through it without breaking down in tears myself. But, right up until the last sentence, i was rock-steady. I did start to well up then, but then it was over. As I walked across the room to Dad, I didn’t really think about it. But, I hugged him. For the first time in my life (adult life?) I hugged my father. It was a quick embrace. People afterwards were amazed that the Brian they know gave the talk he gave. Not many people in that room (maybe no one in that room) knew I had it in me. If they only knew how much more is in me. I had started to well up several times earlier during the “program”. But, in the Smith family, that’s not allowed. During the entire “service” (yes, it resemble a funeral service more than birthday party), I saw no sign of emotion from my mother, my father or my siblings.

Mom told me a couple of times yesterday how grateful and proud she was that I said what I said. Twice while Dad was right there. But, what did I get from him? Not a word. Not unexpected mind you. But, disappointing. The way I’ve got to look at it is I can only control my own behavior. I said the things I wanted to say. So, now I can have no regrets no matter what happens. In that sense, it was a real opportunity and one I’m glad I took advantage of.