Posted by: AgingChild | October 15, 2007

“Our revels now are ended…”

Four years ago this noon, I was passed an urgent message at work to call my mother. I dialed her up immediately and found her in tears, sobbing, unable really to talk.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s your father,” she got out, and sobbed some more. (They’d been divorced almost thirty years… and still she worried sometimes about his failing health.)

My heart skipped a beat, then resumed at a harder pace. “What is it? Can I call someone else” – (two brothers and two sisters, for instance, are just ten or eleven digits away) – “who can tell me?” I wanted to spare her this struggle.

Mother pulled herself together enough to blurt out, “He’s dead.”

This couldn’t be. My heart gave up its duties for good, and switched over to kicking tremendous loads of ice-water through my system. Before hanging up and dashing out the door, I got a quick summary from my mother, that Dad hadn’t shown up that morning to teach his university class, and that the police and one of my brothers had found him, cold already, gone, on the kitchen floor of the house we’d lived much of our childhoods in.

As the icewater in me boiled and flowed down my face while I raced home – about forty miles – the tiny piece of my mind not in utter shock was trying to insulate me by writing a verse, pivoting around the word whole/hole: that now there was a hole that would remain in me forever, where once Dad’s great voice boomed; that in too few days a hole in the earth would claim him; that the rest of my days I’d not be whole any longer; and so on. But even over the next few stunned days, I couldn’t pull the lines together, and the work remains even less complete than Gilbert Stuart’s painting of the father of our country.

What I did manage to compose was a eulogy. With input and suggestions from the family, over the next couple days I wrote a memoriam to this complex man, who had raised, confused, infuriated, inspired, hurt, sustained, baffled, and entertained us all our lives… often all at once.

Then I had the nerve-rattling honor of addressing his church – with a brother and sister beside me to speak as well, and to lend strength (each of us to the others, in fact), at his memorial service – a day before what would have been his seventy-second birthday. Dad ought to’ve snorted, climbed out of his casket, and sat down in the front row just to witness this spectacle of three of his offspring at the – Lutheran – pulpit. He may well have, in fact, for all I could perceive of what was going on around us.

(I’ll put that eulogy here in a moment.)

During this span of shattered days I found songs whirling through my head: Harrison‘s “All Things Must Pass“, Bread’s “Everything I Own”, Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band”, Rutherford‘s “The Living Years”, and so on. Some literary quotes, too, bubbled up. From Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” came one passage in particular; I also checked it out in several translations in German (Dad’s language of birth and most of his academics), but noted quickly that they couldn’t convey the impact of this:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Now a moment, some minutes, of music
Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
     The Tempest, iv. i. 148-58

 

I’m still planning on printing this up in a Tudor-style font, or Fraktur, colored, laminating it, and leaving it by his stone.

This quote triggered a second; I found that the greater part of Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine” likewise echoed what I (and no doubt many others) were feeling at our loss:

Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds’ and spent waves’ riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.

I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.

[…]

There go the loves that wither,
The old loves with wearier wings;
[…]
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
Red strays of ruined springs.

We are not sure of sorrow,
And joy was never sure;
To-day will die to-morrow;
Time stoops to no man’s lure;
And love, grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
[…]
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea
     – Algernon Charles Swinburne

 

(If you have a hymnal handy, look up “The Church’s One Foundation“; this poem can be sung to that tune, if you wedge in an extra beat at each stanza’s sixth line.)

While you have your hymnal out, have a go at “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God“, which we sang at his memorial, and which he’d requested years earlier – and I think Dad may have shot out of the ground, still spinning like a flywheel, last Sunday (a week ago yesterday) when we sang it at Mass. (Afterward, our priest beamed, and said – I don’t know if he meant it ironically, or seriously – “Martin Luther would be proud.”) More likely Dad just grinned smugly. We may keep that grin on him through all eternity, too – “Ein Feste Burg” might be added to his stone.

While we’re here in church – and before I segue into my family’s eulogy for Dad – I want to add a word for Norman, my (ex-) father-in-law, who passed away just days after my father, and whose funeral was held the same day and at the same time, leaving my older daughter – oldest, favorite, doted-on grandchild on both sides of the family – torn over which to attend; I gently had her attend her maternal grandfather’s; her mom (whom I’d divorced almost twenty years earlier) looked so devastated that I knew she’d need the extra shoulder to rest her broken heart on. (Yet even in the midst of her own private anguish over her lost father, Beej – my daughter’s mom – somehow found enough presence of mind to offer me her condolences at my own loss.)

No, strike that; I’m going to give Norm his own blog-posting in a few days – he (and my daughter, and her mom) deserve that.

But this afternoon I did swing out to my father-in-law’s grave – headed home from Dad’s, and Dad’s memorial plaque on campus – to thank him (and his late wife, now at his side again) for two beautiful women who’ve so wonderfully shaped my life: his daughter, whom I married, and the daughter she gave me in turn.

My own dad… I don’t know how to thank, and in his own case this would be tacky and not nearly as… appropriate? So for him, here’s this:

For Dad: In Memoriam

October 21, 2003

This morning I saw that my DayTimer had a quote that especially describes my father, and I thought I’d start by sharing it with you: “Plunge boldly into the thick of life.” It was written by Goethe, one of my father’s favorite authors.

Over these last several days since our father’s passing, we’ve found much comfort in the words and recollections graciously and freely offered to us by many of you, his students and colleagues and friends – both here in his church, and on the University campus.

You truly understand the depth of this terrible ache that we, his family of flesh and blood and tender years, are carrying now at this loss, because it so closely mirrors your own. And even in our own grief, we in turn share our condolences with you, who have lost a giant talent of a teacher; a beautiful, Christian soul of a long and proud tradition; and an utterly irreplaceable icon of a good and loving friend.

We do keenly know how many of his years, and how much of his heart and mind and soul, he poured into his work and worship; and so for all of us there is a great deal of peace and consolation in recognizing that these are things he was doing to his very end. There was to be no long decline for him, no period of great weakness, or fading or feebleness, before he was called back home to God. There was no retirement for him, even – something about which he’d only just begun speaking to some of us, in the last few weeks before his death. It is a beautiful tribute to his love and dedication, that his very last few days among us were spent with his students and the members of this congregation.

And so, none of us in his family could possibly speak to you of what a warm and skilled and humorous professor he’d been these many, many years. Nor could we tell you of the great reverence, deep faith, and devotion through which he served the Lutheran community, especially here. These things you know and felt and saw in him every school day, and every Sunday. And these particular things are of course for you to reflect and recollect and smile and – yes – mourn over.

I can’t even speak adequately of what I know my brothers’ and sisters’ hearts have been going through, as we begin now to look on the meaning of life without our father. But perhaps I can at least offer just a few personal recollections of growing up with him, and so in a way bring you further into our home.

When I was about six, during his first couple semesters teaching at the university, I would sometimes hold his hand while we all walked around campus with him. We got to playing a game of “please don’t squeeze my hand”… only sometimes, the rules changed without warning, and “don’t squeeze” would unexpectedly mean “DO squeeze” and he’d suddenly crunch my little hand in his big palm. It never really hurt that much… not as much as it does now, anyway.

We never lost sight, though, of how those bigger hands reflected the big heart within him. For those hands more than once dressed our wounds when we fell off our bikes, or got an especially large and painful splinter lodged under our skin – and once those hands caught me, as I dangled helplessly from the tree in the back yard, a too-high branch I’d gone out too far on, and was now too scared to jump from.

Even his lap was bigger back then, bigger than it came to be after we’d all grown up… at least until our own kids, in turn, could sit on it. And when we were small and on his lap, he’d always boom out some nonsense-verse in German or English while bouncing us up and down, and suddenly dumping us to the floor.

I think the five of us all still have some caution around bigger voices, having grown up with the echoes of his, throughout the house – and that was a loud voice that no longer will call us downstairs for supper, or ring us over the miles to share with us something of his latest trip to Europe, or an achievement of one of our own children.

He never got the hang of how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich while we were still young – once he even put margarine under the peanut butter before serving it to me. Ugh… but I miss his German-traditional, open-face sandwiches on deep, dark bread.

For a few years, you might open one of his refrigerators and find a large ceramic pot in it. And floating in the pot’s quite potent beverage would be a peck or two of rather happy-looking strawberries or blueberries; I remember he even took up my name for this floating fruit concoction – “brewberries”. The berries seemed to evaporate or dissolve over the course of many weeks… but in retrospect I think they might have been going toward some very interesting, grown-up desserts.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use Old Spice aftershave and cologne – an aroma he always had about him, and which still lingers throughout the house we grew up in, and will always be wrapped around our hearts.

And I wish I knew what happened to the sweater-vest he gave me one Christmas. I don’t think I could bear to put it on – besides, it was so much more his style than mine. But he’d be just a little bit closer to me, I think.

I had the privilege of traveling twice in Germany with Dad. The first time was ten years ago, when he also made it possible for my older daughter to come with us. Those of you who have been fortunate enough to have taken such a trip with him know that you couldn’t have hoped for a more delightful and knowledgeable guide, someone who stood so at ease and so competently astride the two cultures. I thanked him more than once, afterward, for giving me and my daughter the most wonderful three weeks of our lives.

Anyone who’s spent time in Germany knows that it’s a country and culture that seizes you, opening up in you quite a longing to return to it, or even to remain there.

Before our trip there in 1993, I finally persuaded Dad to help me deepen my command of the language, and I dove into his books and tapes like he’d… well, dived into all things Estonian.

A year or two later, seized with that ache to return again to Germany, I was standing near our dad while talking on the phone with one of our relatives who was in Germany. And I said to her, “Ich wollte, ich nur da wär’,” or, “I just wish I were there!” And Dad just about leapt out of his chair; he sat bolt upright, slapped the dining-table quite hard, and exclaimed, “PERFECT first-person subjunctive indirect discourse! VERY good!!” I was his prize student for just one moment… but proud for a lifetime

The second time I traveled with him to Germany was in 1996, when he and I and one of my brothers flew over to help lay his mother, our Oma, to rest after a long illness. If Dad has been the head of our family, Oma had been the heart; and I think her passing dimmed a little of the spark that always was dancing in his eyes.

Out of a deep, personal need I felt to honor Oma, I found myself wanting to read a particular poem by W. H. Auden at her memorial service. So I told my father about my wish, and at his favorite bookstore there in Oma’s home town of Timmendorfer Strand, he helped me order a book of Auden verses in German. But the book did not arrive in time, and the poem was unread when the time came.

I thought of this poem again when my mother told me last week that Dad had died, and I decided that it encapsulates even more, in words that I could never find or write on my own, some of the moments of grief I believe many of us have been experiencing since we lost this father, brother, uncle, professor, and friend of ours. I wanted to read it in here German – as much for you who love him too – but I think now that it serves our hurt best in English, the tongue of his adopted home:

Funeral Blues
Stop all the clocks; cut off the telephone;
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone;
Silence the pianos, and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin: let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle, moaning overhead,
Scribbling on the sky the message, “He Is Dead.”
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves;
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was our North, our South, our East and West;
Our working week, and our Sunday rest;
Our noon, our midnight; our talk, our song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one;
Pack up the moon, and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean, and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

My friends and family, I find that this verse ends on a bleakness I simply don’t feel… for something good and beautiful has indeed come to us, out of the death of this man we’ve loved: we’ve had it brought to us how far-ranging our father’s true family really is. For it encompasses not just us who bear his name or in whose painful hearts his blood flows, but most wondrously a great church of many loving souls, a campus of countless students and faculty and alumni, and a community that stretches over all horizons. And all of you carry a portion of the ache that is ours now, and have even in your grief shared concern for our own hurt, for which, again, we are all deeply grateful.

Welcome, family.

Good-bye, Dad.

We love you.

(Those of you who’ve seen “Four Weddings and a Funeral” will recognize Auden’s poem. Yes; it was like that… although I’m told my Scottish accent is atrocious, nor would I have dared that kind of levity in his church – although Dad would have been laughing himself red in the face if I’d tried it.)

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