Oddly, up here at this church pulpit, I feel like a bumbling, novice pastor.
How to fix that…. Ah.
Dad? Little help?
Better. And it even feels like a hug.
I feel like an actor too. To be “good enough” actors need the lid torn off their heart and spirit, to learn to cry in a way I have yet to learn. And boy did Dad learn to do that with Ginny. He found a boundless love, using it to father still more, in others.
My father always loved theater. Offering. Performance. Teaching. Being valued by a familial audience. Giving and generosity of the transformed spirit. When I was in high school, he directed me in “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” a show he also played the lead in, long ago. I still remember him telling me about one night, live on stage, casually throwing a dart at a distant dart board. The audience gasped in awe when he hit the bull’s eye. But he kept as cool as Houghton Brook.
Being a father is a kind of theater too, and the endless search for the bull’s eye. Acting like you know what to teach. The giving and generosity of the ever transforming spirit. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts. Alan worked to inspire and be larger than life. He came to baseball games, buying siren-and-flashing-light helmets for Christmas, and packed brown paper bag lunches at sunrise. All this while Life drained him as Life does. But he did his huge hearted best, with Ben and Amos Parker, with Aimee and Adam and Josh and Anthony Ducharme, then with Jed and Tamsin Flanders.
My father and I share a lot of things. Even now, for this service, since I don’t dress up much, the only clothes I’m wearing that aren’t his is my underwear. And with me he also shared a struggle to be “good enough.” With perceived failure, and with finding purpose. With the thinking too much and not feeling enough. Once when I was a child a teacher told him the lunches he packed weren’t healthy enough. I remember standing between the dining room and kitchen in the house he built in Tampico, sunlight spilling in while he trembled and cried. “Do you know what that makes me feel like?” he asked, heartbroken. “It makes me feel like I’m not a good Dad!” Heartbroken too, I saw past the everyday static, in the same way one does when a beloved man dies, the distractions falling away and the true spirit coming clear. “You are a good Dad,” I said, hugging him. It’s hard to hug so tall a man.
He was great Dad. His children know. After this service, go to Ben, Aimee, Adam, Josh, Anthony, Jed and Tamsin and ask them how he planted trees in their singular lives, thereby ensuring he’d live on.
I can only speak for what my father planted in me. And somehow that’s not about me, but him.
I remember fishing with him. With Ben. With the Ducharmes too. Strange joy, fishing. Taking the life of a worm on a sharp hook, casting it with hoping tingles far out into distant waters, and hoping to take the life of a fish in trade.
We did this at lakes. We did this at the Houghton Brook, where Dad’s cabin is and where he shared precious time with his first grandson George, a darling scampering and splashing to do his part for the photo we later rested on Alan’s last breaths in a sterile Lebanon hospital. Death accents life, as night highlights day, and poverty amplifies wealth. Modernity tries to impoverish us of the knowledge of Death, with a wealth of comfort. But valuable Death pursues us like rivers pursue the ocean.
Feel that, now. You feel my father’s tragic death reminding you of the true value of life. You’d only forgotten. See that silver lining like a lake lit to azure gold by the setting Sun, your cast worm arching toward it as Moon rises.
Jesus knew the value of fish. And even before he found Jesus, so did my father.
Ages ago my Dad and I sat behind our Tampico home, my butt on the red capped tube that topped the water well. I struggled with life and a numb, voiceless pain. School. Relationships. The future. And he understood. Remembered, rather. With love he wanted to help. I even told him I needed help, but admitted I was scared to accept it. To let the uncomfortable complexity and chaos out. So he put his hand on my shoulder with a man’s courage and told me he still wished to risk trying. I still wish I’d had the courage to trust him.
We saw some of each other at our best along our similar, spiraling paths. Life’s a game of cat and mouse, one person feeling ready to connect, the other disconnected by personal drama. And then the roles reverse. So often one would phone the other, in the open gear of confidence, only to hear the other miss the attempted shift to match it.
Yet he’d come with loving, fatherly friendship up to the cabin at Echo Lake in East Charleston Vermont, a cabin owned by my mother’s side of the family. He knew life overwhelms and obscures my core, but that overlooking that lake I feel like the real me, speaking like I write. And so we’d talk for hours, sharing a whiskey or a beer. Watching the water below, filled with wormless fish living their lives. Talking about Humanity and ideas. About family. About the loves of our lives. The Red Sox. We understood each other, joyful in the unity of the “true gear” his tragic early death has joined us in. And of course we ate Cabot cheddar cheese between Triscuits.
One of my father’s favorite things to say to me was “I love you, Amos Stone Parker.”
Sometimes hearing it was almost too much. It meant he loved every inch. Scary, to people who do not feel “good enough.”
When I said goodbye in the hospital, all by myself beside him after a nurse removed the wires from his head and left, I struggled to thank him for loving all of me. I’d already read him the Boston Globe article, printed when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. The lid ripped off the heart of a nation. The words of others were easy to say, as he lay unconscious in that bed surrounded by machines that go “bing.” My words? They would only be easy if I kept the lid on my heart and didn’t let out my soul. They would be hard, breaking my voice if opened up and faced the tears. Saying goodbye with his full name was like… saying goodbye to all of him. It refused to skirt the issue. I did love him. I do still. And the goodbye of “I love you, Alan Fletcher Parker” was one of the hardest things I ever did. But I did it, finding an adult’s strength in the way all children must, to do their parents proud.
Later, we friends and family stood around him. The father, once so strong with a tiny Ben or Amos in his arms, had become weak, the roles reversed by Time.
We sang or played his favorite songs. “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. “Graceland” by Paul Simon. “How Do You Stop” by James Brown. We shared memories of him. Ask Steve about the poems. Ask Ginny about the cooking. Ask Liz about the grandchildren. And, as he faded, I wondered how one could ever be “good enough” to honor such an end?
My best? I sat on his left side, his left hand in mine.
I watched the pulse on his neck, his face turned toward Ben.
I put my right hand on his heart.
It had beaten like the core of beautiful music for almost sixty five years, though everything. Through three hours of driving to Burlington for work weekdays, day after day, week after week. Like Groundhog Day. Just without the laughs. Through the bills he paid and the lawns he mowed. Even through the serpent’s tooth lack of the gratitude of children.
Then the ending began.
A breath every ten seconds. Every twenty. Every thirty.
His heart said “Please. Let me stay.”
How many beats does a heart get? How many ticks does it take to get to the worldly goal center of a goodly pop?
God only knows. And sorry about that convoluted Tootsie Pop reference, but that’s what happens when you take the lid off an English major.
So I started a new count, slower and slower, softer and softer. A ballpark count. Fenway ballpark.
A lot. A lot plus one. A lot plus… two. A… lot plus… three. A… lot… plus… four. A… lot… of… of… of… love.
Then the father’s heart stopped. I cried, trusting him with my chaos, the lid torn off.
A heavy price to pay for a moment of such power.
Thank you, Dad.
Was that good enough?
He says yes.
Right back at you.
But… he’s not up there. He’s here in our hearts, having trusted his performance and won over his audience.
Now do his many children a favor. And forgive me if the request sounds preachy, but remember I did begin here by asking a preacher for help
When you leave this warm closeness here and go back out into the long, hurtful battlefield of life, when its deadening grey soldiers reach your trench again, when those bills and rivalries and commercials crawl down your nose, ears and throat and try with cutting fingers to drag my father up out of your heart only to bury him in the front part of your logical left brain… fight back.
And if that feels like David against Goliath? Ask Alan for help. He will sling bull’s eyes for you as cool as the Houghton Brook, in tune with the hymnal song of your still beating heart, for as long as you’re willing to fight to keep him there.