“So sorry for your loss,” I said while putting a hand on her shoulder. “I learned a lot about your husband today in the service.”
She smirked and looked away briefly.
“I guess we all did.”
While attending the memorial service for a friend’s father yesterday, I heard the wondrous tales told by friends and family, who described this man of 75 with warm tidings and funny stories. Big-hearted. Compassionate, Best Friend Ever. Excited about life. Epic Handshake. Devoted to God and family. Pinochle master. Hard working. An award-winning BBQ cook. Huge sports fan. Enthusiastic singer. Unwavering moral compass. To his friends, he was the guy who got them out of pinches, laughed with them about life, and dedicated much of his free time to teaching kids about baseball or umpiring for their leagues. Even in his last years, while fighting a multitude of illnesses, he went out of his way to help friends in any manor that his physical limitations would allow.
They were describing a man I didn’t know.
In the years that I knew him, I never saw any of those things. I wasn’t on the BBQ list. He had a tendency to bark at or ignore me when I was over at their home. I don’t think I ever experienced his Epic Handshake, or heard a kind word from his baritone voice. My only memory of him in the house was sitting in a chair watching a game. Any game. It didn’t matter what. I tried engaging him in conversation many times, but was shut out quickly – over and over. The reason he didn’t like me may be sad and simple to explain.
I was his daughter’s boyfriend.
While the eulogy at the service was read, and the friends shared their memories, I listened with an ear tempered by an odd combination of confusion and anger. I was perplexed because I couldn’t connect what I was hearing about this man into my own perception of him. Mad, because in a way I felt robbed of ever knowing the moral and compassionate side of him – a side which would have been far more enjoyable to me than the one he ever offered.
I wasn’t the only one.
The people he and his wife attended church or school with seemed to know him better than his own family. His daughter had no idea he had lettered in Football during high school, until the family started digging through his boxes – only to find the awards and trophies which marked his past as a noteworthy athlete.. When he died, friends from church and from the past seemed to spring out of nowhere – ready to share their fond memories of him with anyone who would listen. His daughter smiled wryly during the reception afterward as we talked about the stories.
“There was much left unsaid,” she commented. “He also had an explosive temper.”
It was that temper, along with some unresolved family issues, that made home life difficult for her. I was honored to be the one she called when she and her husband came to town for the memorial. “You were always there Kurt,” she said. “Through all the mess. It means a lot to me that you’re here now.” It was really the first time in thirty-plus years that we talked about those hard days, when the mere act of putting her in the passenger seat of my station wagon for a trip to Dick’s Drive In was enough to make the night a good night. It got her away from a brother who had difficulty expressing feelings in a constructive way. It got her out of the house, and away from a Mom who was very quick to interrupt her Dad any time he started telling stories about his life.
And it got her away from his temper.
While I wouldn’t say that my perception and that of others was an example of pure dichotomy, I would say that there was very little overlap between what I remember and what I was hearing at the memorial. So who’s right? I think everyone is. Their perception was based on years – sometimes decades – as his friend or coworker. One man – who had known him since grade school – described himself as “The Dash in that 1937 – 2013 on the front of the bulletin.” While many knew him during the later years, he was proud to say he knew him during the in-between ones – the “dash” if you will.
My perception of him is probably a product of circumstance or timing. I was “the boyfriend,” a symbol from which he felt compelled to protect his daughter. I also saw him at the end of work days; I recall cringing whenever his brown Ford pickup truck was in the driveway, knowing I would get some sort of grumpy comment when I came to pick up his daughter. These are my only memories of him, and I’m sad that they are.
During the service I determined that I was going to find some overlap, between what I knew and what his friends shared. In the end, after thinking long and hard about my own dealings with him, I could tell that he was fiercely devoted, dedicated to and protective of his family. He also stayed married to his wife for 49 years, even though it was a difficult partnership. I had personal experience with those two things. There was no point in discussing the less-than-stellar matters with people who were there to celebrate a life of someone they clearly cherished; it would serve no purpose other than to hurt feelings. In the end I saw that he had touched a lot of lives in positive ways, even if I wasn’t on that list. He made a difference for someone, and that’s a good thing. When I talked with family and friends at the memorial, I said simply that I “had learned a lot of about him today,” and that it was clear from my own experience that his family was very important to him. The enlightenment, while small, was enough to help me better appreciate some aspects of his life and service to the community.
I’ll keep that sense of robbery to myself.