EPILOGUE: Reflections on the death of a father
By Rev. John-Brian Paprock
(A eulogy version of this was delivered April 26, 2009 at the public memorial held at the Art Council of the Brazos Valley, College Station, Texas)
We are all fragile; so easily broken, so easily killed. Yet we are all resilient, like the young man I met who was hit by a truck and bounced on the payment, grateful for walking again (even with a limp). Like my father, who bragged about the 20 stets in his body – mostly in his sickened wounded heart even while he was fighting bladder cancer.
Seeing such a frail weak sickly old man, who was trying to suck oxygen from the air with mouth open while a tube tried to spray oxygen through his nose, as a threat to a 47 year old man is certainly not rational, although there were times in my life when he was. When I was very young, I learned to be scared when he was angry. Once thrown against the wall, shattered, was enough.
Sitting on the couch, I looked at him, at his face. His eyes didn’t open as often, but he wanted to sit in the living room. Moved with compassion, I stroked the side of his face and placed my forehead on his and said, "I know it’s hard but you’re not alone." All of his children and grandchildren were in Texas, the same state at the same time, a minor miracle in our family that did not go unnoticed. Sometimes miracles are in the common and the cooperative, not in the supernatural.
Dying, weaker and weaker, eventually his eyes only half opened. My sisters moved him into the medical bed provided by hospice. "Good night dad, I am going home," I said loudly enough so that even his failing senses could hear. "Um, I mean going to the hotel. If there is anything you need – anything – let me know I will be back as soon as possible." My voice began to trail off. My mind told me to stay – there wasn’t much time; my instincts told me to go with my wife and my son and rest. He died before daybreak.
In the morning: prayers and incense in the traditional manner. Everyone kissed him good-bye and we sung the dirge, "Eternal Memory" over and over and over again. I fell to my knees after covering his face, crying. I was no longer able to contain my sorrow. When I looked up, the funeral director was there on the other side of the bed. He had a peaceful condolence on his face. Rose petals for the procession of my father’s body around the house to the funeral van… and then he was gone.
Later in the room, with the empty hospice bed, stripped of sheets and pillows, more tears came. ["Lord, have mercy – Lord, have mercy – Lord, have mercy"] Words became gibberish under the tears. With images of his dead body flickering on the empty bed, I closed my eyes and remembered a few hours earlier, a few hours before the wake-up call that my father had died.
At the hotel, soon after saying "Good night," I was asleep, exhausted from traveling, from dealing with intensity of emotions from every direction and from proving to myself forgiveness. During that sleep, a dream came into focus. There I was as a young child drawing with crayons at a table. The table was in a spotlight and the edges of the room were only hints fading into the dark. Through doorway walked my father, early middle-age and smiling.
"Whatcha making?" he asked easing over to look closely at the work. This was so familiar and so comfortable; my dad looking over my shoulder at my work. Even when I was the age of the young child with crayons at the kitchen table, he was always a teacher, encouraging with praise and critique. When he would paint or draw or even just cut mats for photos, I would watch with fascination and ask lots of questions. Sometimes his patience would wear thin, but mostly he would answer, helping me understand.
I loved to watch him draw, illustrate, paint. There was a game we would play when I was young. He would draw lines and ask me to guess what it was – when I would finally get it, he would quickly finish the drawing. He would also tell me to draw random lines on paper and he would then draw something with such detail that my lines faded into his artistic vision. This was indeed a precious gift he gave me – that no matter how small my contribution seemed; it was always a part of the fantastic finished work. And so, I have never held back in contributing to the creative and constructive in the worlds around me. Even though I was often in awe of his artistic skill and vision, he would help me see the details, see the beautiful and the unique in the common, see the potential that could be exposed with a little purposeful framing.
He helped develop my inner vision and my outward perceptions. In the woods or on the road, "Did you see that?" or "Did you hear that?" Then, as I got older, I would say to him, "Did you see that?" or "Did you hear that?"
One of the most precious moments came in my adulthood when he was visiting Madison, Wisconsin about 15 years ago during one of my creative periods. I was working in pastel and he was looking at some of my work. I could see the art teacher and critic examining my work. I started to get nervous every time he would passively disregard a piece. Then he said, "These are very good. I think you have found your medium." Ironically, the one he especially liked, a piece I called "Transfigured Tomb:" two figures attending to a glowing corpse which is the only source of light in the piece. Subtly in front of the corpse’ box, three mourners. I was delighted and stunned by his compliment. If I didn’t have a show coming at that time, I might have given the piece to him right then - as a boy would give a crayon drawing to be hung with magnets on the refrigerator.
I wish we could have more time on these things, but as adults we had very distinctive lives. It seemed for everything we held in common interest and pursuit; there was too much time and space between us over the years.
Back to the dream, back to the age when my dad and I shared time and space more easily and more frequently, when I was very young….
"I’m making angels for you, Dad" I said in an almost glib manner without taking my attention from the work.
"Really?" He said in an almost complimentary manner.
"Which one do you want?" I asked. He looked over the one I was working on and then through the few piled on the side.
"This one!" he exclaimed, grabbing one from the pile enthusiastically. It was a white angel. He held it up in front of him with both hands, nodded his head with a smile. I turned to him and we smiled at each other. I returned to making angels. He took the angel and went through the door, fading into the darkness.