This weekend, in the middle of saving an article I had written on my old Dell laptop, I came across a file that was just named “Dad.” When I opened it up, I realized it was the eulogy that I had written for his funeral last summer.
I had it ready to go at the ceremony, but I decided against it. My brother, Mark, had given an impromptu speech that was clearly from the heart, and here I had only carefully scripted, comparatively anesthetized words. One of my relatives one row back was sniping about the length of the speeches. And I wasn’t crying, which people had already taken as some sort of affront, and would come off even more coldly if I got up and delivered a tears-free speech. (“What sort of son is that?”) I was worried that the speech referenced my siblings in a sometimes-not-amazing way … and it had the word “dinghies” in it, which I had thought was entertaining when I wrote it but probably wouldn’t sound right when spoken.
Looking back, I should have followed my brother up to the podium and shared these thoughts. I figure a year later isn’t too far in the past, so here’s the text:
I don’t think my dad really knew what he was in for when he married my mom.
He did get a taste early on: They delayed their wedding because Mom wanted July 14 to remain special, as my sister Tammy’s birthday. But the scale of things? I can’t imagine there weren’t times where he didn’t think to himself, “Man, I did not sign up for this.”
Parenthood is never easy, but from the moment he said “I do,” my father began walking an especially delicate line of raising three kids that biologically were not his (and, whenever they disagreed with him, probably didn’t hesitate to remind him of this fact with a well-timed “You’re not my REAL father!”).
But “delicate” is not exactly a word that springs to mind when you think about my father. Instead, he fathered the way he did many things in life: Quietly, firmly and steadily. And most importantly, he provided a nonstop sense of security and family that was impossible to ignore.
Even when he was away on the road to Spokane, Couer d’Alene or Minneapolis, his presence still loomed large on the horizon — the other day my sisters were discussing how just the words Wait until Duane gets home could strike fear into the heart of a misbehaving child.
But when summer trips to visit their “real father” went horribly awry, or when boyfriends (or husbands) broke hearts, my father would get in the car, drive to the other side of the state and bring the hurting child home without an “I told you so.”
And, each on their own schedule, my brother and sisters realized who had truly raised them and been their father. By the time they were adults with their own families, they were all calling him “Dad,” not “Duane.”
I, meanwhile, presented challenges of a completely different nature. I was lucky enough to have him as my full-fledged father from the start. But when he realized he would be raising a Mittelsteadt who preferred books to baseballs, shopping to shop class, and clothing to cars … I’m pretty sure he wondered if there had been a mixup at Deaconess Hospital back in June 1969. But I never perceived any sense of disappointment and am proud to say that he steadfastly supported the son he had, instead of any son he might have wished he had gotten. And yet somehow, he also stealthily supplied me with knowledge I never thought I would need. Drywall repair, auto maintenance, chainsaws and winches? Check.
And when that son would call late at night from Colorado, curled up in a fetal position on the couch because of car problems he couldn’t figure out and couldn’t pay for, it took only five words that finally provided enough comfort to sleep that night: “Let me get your father.”
He was, for years, the rock of Gibraltar, and we kids were the dinghies that occasionally would run aground — sometimes a bit battered in the process. But as we grew up we learned to consider him not as an obstacle, but as a landmark and a point of navigational reference.
The challenge now will be to navigate without him.
Last night, I kicked myself a bit for not sharing that with the people who were gathered there that day. So this is my way of making up for it.