People often joke about the impracticality of an English degree. After all, our major doesn’t teach us accounting or engineering or law or any of those hard skills the job market values. Even I poke fun a bit — always with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, of course — because I know our myriad of soft skills such as reading comprehension, analysis, empathy, and communication are the basis for all others.
When my father died on March 25, 2011, one year ago today, everyone turned to the English major to write his eulogy. Understandably, my mother and my sister couldn’t get through such a speech. It was difficult for me as well, but I had my writing to support me.
I’ve included the eulogy below as a remembrance for today. It was also the most difficult piece I had to craft in such a short time. After all, his passing wasn’t after a long battle with brain cancer. The cancer claimed him 17 days after diagnosis. I then had another seven to deal with my grief and come up with something memorable to say.
I’m told that I captured him well.
Thank you, everyone, for coming today. For those of you who don’t know me, and those who I’m sure will come up later to say, “I haven’t seen you since you were yay high,” I’m Mike’s son Danny. I’m also a writer, so I’m sure you’ll understand how I feel more comfortable with the written word.
I measure the success of a man’s life by the other lives he touched and the number of people who loved him. This metric is often hard to quantify, but looking over all of you who came today, I think that question answers itself. Even during the short time Dad was in the hospital, entourages upon entourages flowed through his room. The nurses had difficulty coming up with different ways to say, “Wow, it’s a party in here.” The number of people who cared was a testament to the person he was.
As many of you know, my father could be a man of few words—not when it came to politics or the stock market—but his main form of communication was action. If any of us expressed that we wanted a certain food in the house, he’d quietly disappear and go get it. Same with movies we’d want to see. His sense of humor sometimes made him sound arrogant, but in actuality, he was extremely humble and neither bragged about nor advertised his generosity. He was a supportive husband; a loving father, son, brother, uncle, and friend; a true sucker for his dogs, even though he pretended they were ruining his life; a man of faith; and, above all, a hard worker in every category.
The strongest drive of his personal and professional life was to support his family, to make sure we were taken care of. For my sister and I, it took us many years to understand these core values because his message sometimes suffered from poor expression. Report cards were usually met with: “How come that B couldn’t be an A?” Translation: “Always strive to do better.”
As the first-born son, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. I could be stubborn, sarcastic, and too clever for my own good. This is all understandable because I learned from the best. Over time, however, we grew closer, and I came to realize how much of my father I have in me. It turned out that I inherited his logical/creative dichotomy. His job as a lawyer required him to be highly rational, but he was a creative person at heart. A musician. A weekend screenwriter. He knew story well and would offer insightful feedback on my own work.
But what I’ll always appreciate most was how he never discouraged my sister and I from our career choices in creative fields—mine in writing, hers in theatre. He never told us not to waste our time with artistry because, as a life-long musician, he knew first-hand of the fulfillment such endeavors offered. Then, the logical side would step in and say that while art is all well and good, it’s important that we find some practical way to support ourselves. I guess that sort of encouragement is only natural from a former hippie-surfer-rock musician who once graduated from barber college and worked as a short-order cook before becoming a trial attorney. (I’m still not fully sure how that transition occurred.) All the while, he never stopped playing the guitar.
To his wife, my mother, he was the most generous, selfless, loving person she’s ever known. His family meant everything to him.
To his daughter, she remembered when she decided to become a vegan. Some complained about the difficulty in planning around her new diet, but Dad just shut up and cooked. And he was a good cook, too, surprising us with doctored recipes and offering the first bite of whatever was on the stove to anyone close by.
My girlfriend quickly became part of the family. My father could be a difficult man to read and open up to new people; so at first, she was timid around him. But he liked her and secretly admitted to my mom that he loved how she would watch baseball with him.
To his sister Sue, Mike was her lion. He was always protective of his baby sister but then very gentle with her.
He also has three younger brothers. To his little brother Don, Mike was always there for him. Similarly, he always gave Rob good advice—except that one time they were hiking, as I’m told, when my dad was about nine and Rob was five, when Dad told him to pet a dog they’d found. Well, the dog jumped up and bit Rob, and Grandma sped them right over to St. Joe’s for stitches. That could be just one example of why his third brother Rich liked that Mike was older: he made the mistakes first. (I’m just glad his advice track record has improved since then.)
Even his mother always consulted Dad regarding any big decision. Fairly recently, she wanted to install double-pane windows.
“Why?” he asked.
“My house is so noisy,” Grandma said, “I can hear the baby next door.”
His response: “Get earplugs.”
Quicker and cost-effective. My dad to a T.
From his many professional colleagues have come nothing but praise and respect for his work. He took on the most difficult of criminal cases that others avoided. He loved God; he loved his country; and he believed it to be important that people who needed a defense received a competent one to protect their rights granted under the Constitution. Now, it’s easy for most to agree with our country’s ideals on a cursory level, but it takes a considerable person of character to accept that challenge for 35 years and do so with skill.
Integrity. Selflessness. Hard work. These were his lessons by example.
I could list forever the people he impacted and moments shared, but many of those stories are best recounted by those who experienced them. By you. I trust you’ll keep those times alive in your hearts, to bring you a smile when you need one. While my father’s life was cut much shorter than any of us would have liked, find comfort in those cherished memories. Also know that as his time grew to a close, he was not afraid of death. He just made sure he told everyone he could that he loved them.
Last Friday, I was getting ready to return to the hospital when I received the call that he had passed. Of course, I knew what had happened before any words were exchanged. Before that, however, in the moment when his soul left his body (which is merely a vessel), I did not feel the universe change. I did not feel Dad’s presence leave me; nor do I feel it gone now. Sure, our world is a little less bright since we’ll miss his conversation, his laugh, his counsel. But his spirit is still with us, in here (point to head) and in here (point to heart). He’ll always be close by to listen, to support us when we need it. We are all immeasurably stronger for having him as a part of our lives, and that is all he ever wanted for us.
We miss you, Dad. We love you. And we’ll talk to you soon.