I had to write a eulogy last week, for my Dad.
I had never written one before and was unsure about how to approach it. Do I just say a few nice words about Dad’s life from my perspective? Anecdotes of moments I shared with him hardly seemed enough. Dad was eighty and he had lived far more moments than those I knew.
A person’s child, even one as old as me, has a restricted view, even if it is intimate. Siblings and friends also have limited views. We only really know aspects of someone that are relevant to our relationship, and few of us know the story preceding us.
My father’s wife, his life-partner from the time he was thirty, was happy to share heartfelt words about their lives together. That freed me up to share my perspective – memories of being my father’s child – and the knowledge I had of his childhood.
Fortunately, around five years ago, I took an historical interest in my father’s story. I asked him about it and took notes. It was a tough story. How much was appropriate to tell in a eulogy? What was important for a good understanding of who Dad was?
What should be known?
Within the confines of people’s attention spans, I chose to reveal his harsh realities in order to communicate what a success Dad had made of his life. I was not sure about the ethics of this decision.
I knew I could upset some people in the room, both family that were connected to my father in childhood and anyone that prefers euphemisms to bitter truths. My father had an unhappy childhood, would be correct but it would be unclear. It would not explain his base line enough to convey the heights of his achievements.
Dad was motherless at eighteen months old. He was mostly raised by his mother’s mother, which started out okay but became a problem as she became unstable and preferred to keep him home rather than send him to school. His mother’s youngest sister still lived at home and disliked him, depriving him of toys and friends and taking to him with a rope strap. He lived with other relatives for short spells when he was fourteen, some good, others bad. By fifteen he had left to make his own way in the world. At twenty-two he was married with a baby – me – and along with my mother, worked hard to put food on the table. This marriage only lasted seven years and was tempestuous.
In the eulogy, I gave details that made Dad’s story real. I wanted people to know the improvements that Dad made in his life; achievements that reflected on his character. Dad did not dwell on his childhood, but his experience did shape who he was. He was not a victim and he did not become toxic. Instead, he was responsible, ethical, capable, and loving.
Despite beginnings that included little love, he learned to love. He met a young woman who became the love of his life, whom he considered first and foremost, whom he adored for fifty years. Despite no education, he learned a skill and went on to develop his own financially successful business. Despite deprivation, he had an eye for quality and beauty, and collected art and antiques. Despite not having an active father, he managed to become a good one.
He died, loved by many.
The eulogy I wrote took six minutes to say. It was a brief history but a true one. Some people may have been upset or offended, but those that spoke to me afterwards, said they appreciated my candor. I knew I had done the right thing when my own son said he had learned things he did not know before, things that explained some of my father’s character to him.
Which begs the question, do we share enough truths while we are living? Are we too scared of upsetting or offending people to reveal ourselves fully? Do we live too much shielded by euphemisms?
Why wait until we are dead to have our stories told and appreciated?