"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

In Memory of My Father

Dad on Our Wedding Eve

My father died 20 years ago today: February 23, 2003. This post is a memorial to his life and a remembrance of his presence, which lives on in me. Here my eulogy that I gave at his funeral service:

“As I prepared this, I asked myself what my father would want me to say. He was not one for posturing, sermonizing and certainly not for long-winded eulogies. Indeed, I kept hearing him say: “Keep it short and cut the bull.” And so I shall.

He did not have an easy life. The oldest of 5 children, he came of age in the Great Depression in a family that had to scuffle and scratch to keep food on the table. Beginning at the age of 8, he spent summers on a relative’s farm, plowing fields behind a horse. He chose to go to Edison Tech, rather than the local high school, so he could learn a trade that was more reliable than masonry, which was the work of his family. He had to bike some distance to school through neighborhoods where he was harassed and chased. Characteristically, his response was to go to the gym, lift weights, become stronger so he would not be intimidated or bullied.

This spirit did not desert him. In the last days of his life, when Parkinson’s had rendered his limbs useless, a particularly insensitive nurse tried to give him his medication by forcing pills into his mouth. His response was to spit them back in her face. Indeed, I think he invented the phrase, “In your face.”

This spirit was coupled with a sense of duty and commitment to his family. Not only was he working on a farm, in difficult labor, in his earliest years, but he also rummaged through the dumps for metal, coal, and rags to support his family—and as the eldest, he assumed a role of responsibility for his family’s welfare that was disproportionate to his young age. He was drafted just prior to World War II, and throughout his tour of duty, while serving his country, he sent home most of his paycheck to help support his family.

After the war he had his own family to support and did so by working 3 shifts: 2 weeks days; 2 weeks nights; and sometimes the graveyard shift. This for 33 years. He was a fitful sleeper and this punishing schedule made rest even more difficult and infrequent. I know, I remember him forgoing buying a much needed shirt so that I could have a bike. He was quiet and of few words, but expressed his love, his care, and his commitment through everyday acts of labor and sacrifice. He worked to support us, but not avoid us. He was there for us. There was not a day in my life that I did not feel loved.

On His “Farm”

This is who he was. Tough, fiercely independent, not expecting life to be anything but a struggle, who, with tenacity and perseverance, sacrificed for his family’s well-being; first for his sisters and brother, later for his own family. Indeed, one of the most important days of the year was not his birthday, for which he cared little, but for the fall day each year when all his family—immediate and extended—came down to his “farm” in the Southern Tier of New York to celebrate being together. These were among the happiest moments of his life.

His most important gifts to us were those values, mostly unstated, expressed in how he lived his life. He strived to give us more opportunities than he had; to give us a secure and loving childhood. This he did. He had high expectations for us, not in terms of accomplishments, but who we should be as people; that whatever we did we should do it with the highest standards of excellence, pursued with honesty and integrity; to live in a way that we could be proud of—that he could be proud of.

His life taught us that the world owes us nothing, that we must make the best of the opportunities that we create for ourselves and, more importantly, to have enough strength to learn from failure, to have the fortitude to not surrender ourselves for success, and to possess the resiliency to face life’s difficulties. He instilled a healthy mistrust of vested authority, skepticism of conventional wisdom, and the courage of conviction even, and especially, when these convictions are unpopular.

What is important today is not the particulars of his death, but that his death help us remember his life. In honoring his life, let us remind ourselves of the precious gift that is our life. Out, out, brief candle. Our end awaits us sooner than we imagine.

For my father, I am grateful for who he was, for what he bequeathed us, and say, one last time,

Thank you.

I love you.

Goodbye”.

18 Comments

  1. Joan

    What a powerful tribute to a resilient and loving father!

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Joan.

  2. Sherrie Kamm

    beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you for your comment, Sherrie.

  3. Andrea Jackson

    Lovely. Thank you, Brian.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Andie.

  4. Sharon Poe

    Beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing, Brian.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Sharon. Brian

  5. Thomas Vandenberg

    Hi Brian. Thanks for the reminder of Uncle Ralph’s passing and those memories of his life. You know I think of him often. The time I spend driving to and from the farm and in the woods where we spend so many hours of peaceful observation of nature and the environment he and Aunt Polly created by clearing and planting thousands of trees. So many of our family and my friends appreciate and recognize their efforts all year long. It’s been a great privilege to continue to be a steward of the farm and keep it a welcome place to everyone who wants to get out and enjoy the fresh air and solitude as your parent did. God bless Uncle Ralph and Aunt Polly.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Tom. My father was so happy that you took over stewardship of the “farm”. He often said that he didn’t own it, but was just a caretaker of it for a while. He knew you felt the same and rested easy knowing it was in your hands. You held a special place in his heart (unspoken, of course). Thank you for your thoughtful comments—it means a lot. Brian

  6. Maxine Stone

    Lovely tribute to your strong and courageous father. Thanks for sharing

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Maxine.

  7. Richard Codding

    Great tribute to your Dad.
    I had forgotten his name was Ralph That was my Dad’s name also
    More in common with your Dad was shift work. Schedules changed frequently so one never had a good sleep routine Twas a tough work life indeed!
    Thanks for sharing

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Rich. I do remember your father—a gentle soul, faced with similar life challenges as my father.

      Lucky us.

  8. Edward Smith

    Great tribute.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Ed.

  9. Gary Morse

    Thank you, Brian, for sharing your eulogy and by that beautiful narrative, a window into your father. It is a gift that his presence remains with you–and clear that many of your father’s positive qualities, attributes, and values have found expression in your own life.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Gary.

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