My father passed away on November 18, 2008, the day after he turned eighty-six years old. He had been fighting Alzheimer’s disease for nearly ten years and had been going downhill physically for the nine months leading up to his death. It was very hard watching his decline and worrying about my mother, who was his chief caregiver the entire time leading up to the last nine months. Even after he was moved to a series of nursing facilities, she visited him faithfully and remained the one constant in his often disrupted environment.
He donated his body to medical research, so we never held a funeral service. Rather, my mother took the next four months to gradually recover her strength and plan a way for us to honor his memory in the spring, when the family would be able to gather (from eight different areas of the U.S. and Japan).
On March 21, the memorial service was held, and anyone who attended it can attest how lovingly my mom designed every facet of it: from the musical selections played by the recorder choir and organist in the prelude, to the ones performed by my middle brother (on guitar), and my nieces (on violin and viola, and again vocally) later in the service. There was a responsive reading affirmation of faith, a pastoral prayer given by a family friend, and a message by the minister of my parents’ church.
But the best part of the service for me, were the words of remembrance given by my eldest brother and my nephew (representing the kids and grandkids), followed by the random and spontaneous selection of comments offered by the guests in attendance that the minister went around capturing with a cordless microphone. Although I knew many of the folk reminiscing and could even remember firsthand some of the anecdotes they shared, it was very interesting and gratifying hearing how my dad had touched their lives.
I wasn’t able to contribute anything for the service personally, but I also had the opportunity to pay tribute to my dad by preparing a number of small visual exhibits (for the reception afterwards) celebrating various facets of his life:
1. His artistic talents.
2. His hard work for the International YMCA organization throughout his entire life.
3. His dedication as an editor to many newsletters through the years.
4. His work as a college professor, advisor to foreign students, and as the director of continuing education at his school and later assistant to the president (of the college).
5. I had a poster of a world map on the wall, with string glued from many countries where he worked as a consultant and trainer for the Y, to photos from those experiences arranged on the outer border.
6. There was a collage of photos celebrating his life as a family man and friend to so many.
My biggest regret was that I never took a proper photo of the exhibit before dismantling it. But I was glad many who attended the reception got to see it.
A dear friend wrote me (just before I left for the states to attend the service) that this was my father’s last gift to all of us: the opportunity to gather together and celebrate his life. I felt his presence there, without having him physically present.
I felt him in my eldest brother, who is so like him in character (despite his great efforts to the contrary), it was a little spooky.
I felt him in my cousin, whom I hadn’t met in forty years, so it hit me like a ton of bricks when he reminded me of my uncle (who was Dad’s younger brother).
I felt him in my son, who dutifully took it upon himself to be the cameraman of the event, bless his heart. I had the same familiar sense of security, knowing I didn’t need to use my camera at all and he would “cover” things for all of us (just like my dad used to do).
I felt him in my nephew, who has the same friendly people skills imbedded in his genes!
Daddy was everywhere—in the Y’s men and women who loved him enough to come all the way from my hometown in Illinois to attend.
And I felt him in the people of the retirement community where he lived for nearly thirteen years, touching lives in a significant way.
The entire day was a joyous celebration of HIS LIFE, beyond any argument. And it proved what I have believed all along: that there is much more value in holding a big party to honor the one that has “gone before” us, rather than have a funeral to mourn their passing and our loss. In the case of my dad, there wasn’t anything lost. He added life everywhere he was and through everyone he touched. Even through his death, LIFE is what remains for us and LIFE is beckoning us to follow in his footsteps!