My brothers and I each spoke at my Dad’s memorial service. What follows is what I said. I’d hesitated about sharing this with the general public because I originally wrote this for an audience that already knew and loved him, so some things may not be clear if you didn’t, or perhaps even if you did. For example, there are a handful of inside references that I basically threw in just for my immediate family (including movie quotes from “Airplane!” and “Back to the Future.”) Regardless, I think the overall message I was trying to send is a valuable one, regardless of whether you knew my father or not, and if you decide to sit through it, I hope it will be worth your while. Here goes:
The number “3” has held a special significance for our family for as long as I can remember. “3” stands for three words: I love you. It was my father’s idea that we use the number three as a family code for saying, “I love you,” and it became our tradition. Anytime we ever said goodbye to each other we would use the code, either by saying the number out loud, or by holding up three fingers, like this (Hold up three fingers). I don’t think I’ve ever sent an email to my parents or my brothers that didn’t end with that number. I seriously doubt that Dad suggested this because saying those particular three words made him uncomfortable. Indeed, we used those words too, for big goodbyes, or special occasions, and my Dad never shied away from saying, “I love you.” But our code was simply more efficient for a strong, silent type. Why use three words when one will do, or none? (Hold up three fingers.)
In some ways, it feels strange to try to honor my Dad with words, because as you know, he wasn’t exactly famous for talking too much. It’s often said that talk is cheap; that good writers and teachers show rather than tell, and actions speak louder than words. My Dad showed us he loved us far more than he told us, in a thousand different little ways.
He was an affectionate man, although not always in the traditional ways. Along with hugs and kisses he would often walk up behind us and start giving shoulder rubs, which were always just a little bit more intense than necessary. His hands and toes were freakishly strong, and every once in a while he’d hand you something you needed by picking it up with his toes, or you might be dozing and wake up suddenly and find Dad’s toes pinching your leg, and a sly grin on his face. When we were little he loved to threaten to tickle us for several minutes before finally attacking, and the tickling went on long after we begged him to stop. Then he would hold us down and blow really hard onto our stomachs. Like this (make blowing noise).
The day my two brothers and I were finally strong enough to return the favor was a proud day for us indeed. But it still took three of us, and if I remember correctly, I think I was already old enough at the time to have switched from calling him “Daddy,” to just “Dad.”
Dad-Dad-Daddy-Oh loved to tease us. He had an ongoing routine where, every time we picked up Mom from work, and we were sitting in the car, he would always claim to be able to see her before we could. “She’s coming down the elevator now… oh… it stopped… somebody come inside… ok, going doooowwwwn. There she is!” Anytime there was a rainbow he would always be able to see a second rainbow, or a third one, and it was always too faint for the rest of us to catch. He kept the routines going long after we all figured out that he was joking, but we still played along. Dad was an organ donor, and at first I was surprised that they took his eyes, because as he got older they began to fail him, but I should’ve remembered that, like his hands, his toes, and his heart, his eyes were freakishly strong.
Dad always made sure we were never hungry. Well, no… actually, that’s not exactly true. We three growing boys were usually hungry, but Dad always made sure we got fed. Without fail, he always had a couple of bucks to give each of us on the way to school, so that we could buy something to snack on after our home lunch had been devoured. And Dad always offered one of us the last piece or morsel of whatever we were sharing, even when he wouldn’t have minded eating it himself.
Like all of you, our Dad worked hard and tirelessly to provide for his family. I found out recently that his dispatcher said he always got the good bus, because he always came early. I can remember asking him, when I was small, and before I understood, why he couldn’t stay longer with us, why he had to go to work so soon. That must’ve been tough for him to hear. For years and years he worked the graveyard shift, and still, every morning, after driving all through the night, he would come home, put gas in the tank, pour coffee into a mug for my Mom, and take her to work and us to school. Then, after trying to sleep a bit in the heat of the day, he’d turn around and drive into town through traffic again, often waiting for us to finish basketball practice before starting the cycle all over again. And I never once heard Dad complain.
But then, like I said, Dad didn’t talk much. Well, except for this one time…
My Dad loved cars. He probably spent more of his sixty-five years behind the wheel of a vehicle than he did walking, eating and sleeping, combined. His left arm was far darker than his right from hanging out of the driver side window so much. He could take various pieces of scrap metal from a junkyard and turn it into a sweet ride, and he loved doing it. His pants pocket always jingled with keys. Here they are… the keys he always carried with him. (Take out keys and show them.)
God only knows what they’re all for, but Shirley, a lot of them are for something with wheels. So when it was time for me to learn to drive, he was excited to teach me, but before I could get behind the wheel, I endured what felt like weeks of lectures on the details and intricacies of every single car part. “Safety,” he said, “is important. Blah… blah… blah…” That was the only time in my life that I ever wished that he would just stop talking.
And now he has, completely. My father’s body will soon be put to rest, but his soul has gone to a better place. And he will not be forgotten. All of us who knew him and loved him will remember him for who he was: a hero. Maybe not the kind of hero you see in Hollywood films, but an unsung hero: an unassuming man of quiet strength, kindness, sacrifice, and unlimited patience; a man who always did whatever needed to be done without being asked, and who never complained or asked for gratitude. He will live on in our hearts, our memories, and our dreams.
A few nights ago I had a dream about Dad. In my dream he had survived a near-death experience, and as he was walking up the stairs to go to bed, I said, “I love you Dad, 3,” and he said, “3. I love you, too.” I shared a look with my Mom, and without a word we both knew what the other was thinking: what a miracle it was that Dad was still with us and how thankful we were that we could still say that to him and he would hear us. My Dad came back down the stairs and started tickling me like when I was little, and I squealed and laughed, begging him to stop. And then I woke up… and I cried.
The weekend before my Dad passed away, my Mom had suggested that we all have a chat online, but I was too busy to take a few minutes to catch up with my family, saying we could do it the following weekend instead. And so, I missed a chance to hear my father’s voice for one last time, saying the few things that he always did over the phone: asking me how the weather was in Moscow, saying that the car missed me, telling me what ono (“ono” means delicious in Hawai’i) things they were going to have for lunch and suggesting I come over. That was another way he had of telling me he loved me. My Dad knew we loved him; of that I have no doubt, but still… what wouldn’t I give to tell him “3” just one more time.
I seriously considered asking for a moment of silence in honor of my Dad today. It seemed fitting for such a quiet man. In fact, his quiet nature will make it easier for me to pretend that he’s just taking a nap in bed, or watching the news on TV, rather than gone. But I don’t want silence. I want to hear him laugh again. My Dad had the most contagious laugh I’ve ever heard: a weird but beautiful sound somewhere between a girlish giggle and a hyperventilating bicycle horn. It was impossible not to smile and laugh along when you heard it. I want to hear him whistle a tune. He was a good whistler. I want to hear him sneeze. Sneezing was the only thing my Dad did with the volume turned up. Way up. His sneezes were so loud your heart would jump and you thought for a moment that a bomb had just dropped. I used to tease him about it until the first time I had a similar sounding sneeze, and my brothers looked at me with wide eyes, and I realized that I was destined to sneeze the same way as Dad, although perhaps not quite as violently. But I won’t ever again hear my Dad laugh or whistle or sneeze or say, “Someting like dat,” like he always used to. His silence is permanent now, and I don’t need any more of that than I’m already going to get.
Instead, I’m going to ask you to do something you’re often asked to do in church: turn to the folks next to you and greet them. All of you have people in your life whom you love dearly, people who are alive right now. Perhaps some of them are actually with you here tonight. If so, please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity and tell them or show them right now that you love them, in whatever manner that suits you: with words, with hugs, with kisses, with a hi-five or a slap on the back… whatever. Go ahead. Mom, Evan, Sean: 3
To be honest, I always hated having to do that in church. It always seemed so awkward: “Ohhh, uhh, heeeey, yeah, hi, nice to see you, blah, blah, blah…” So anyway, sorry about that. But I’m not finished yet. I’m now going to say something that you’ve probably never heard during a church service before: Please take out your cell phones and turn them on. I want you to think of someone you love; someone who’s not here right now, and send them a message. Tell them that you love them, tell them you miss them or that you’re thinking of them. Or just type the number “3” and explain what it means later. Do this for me, please. Do this in honor of my father. But most importantly, do this for yourself. I’m going to also. (Don’t forget to actually take out your phone and do this yourself.) If this is really too difficult for you, you can pretend to do it. Take out your phone and stare at it, or send a message to yourself instead, or check the score of the game, or update your Facebook status. But just remember that, at any moment, that phone in your hand could ring or vibrate and you’ll find out that you’ll never again have the opportunity to tell or show that special someone you love them.
And after you’re done, please don’t forget to set your phones… to silent.
Perhaps I did learn something about car parts from my Dad after all. I learned that he was the steering wheel that pointed us in the right direction; the set of tires that kept us on track; the breaks that slowed us down when we were going too fast, the gas that… provided fuel; the headlights that shined through the darkness; the GPS that found the way when we were lost; the windshield wipers that brushed our tears away; the grease that kept things running smoothly; the bumpers and seatbelts that protected us from harm. He was the key, or rather, the set of keys, that unlocked a world of possibilities. If you would, I have one final thing to ask of you: please take your keys out of your pocket, and make some noise for my father (jingle keys). To you Dad. Thank you. I love you. 3.