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.

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