Monday, November 25, 2013

Dad's Funeral Talk

My dad passed away earlier this year, and my siblings and I all spoke at his funeral. I have finally decided that since the funeral was public, I am going to also post my talk here. I've taken the family names out of it. Otherwise, this is just how I delivered it.

A few months before my father died, he compiled a brief personal history of his 64 years here on earth. It is 76 pages long, including pictures. It is a wonderful treasure that will take on increased meaning for his children and grandchildren as the years pass. And even so, it feels so abbreviated.

And now I only have about ten minutes to pay tribute to this gentle giant of a man.

My mom asked me to include as part of my remarks a mention of a particular song that my dad loved: "The Impossible Dream," a heart-felt personal mission statement sung by Don Quixote in the musical Man of Lamancha. If you are not familiar with the story, Don Quixote was a crazy old man who roamed the countryside, believing that he was a knight in shining armor. He would attack windmills with his sword, thinking that he was slaying dragons. He was not taken seriously by the world, but was an object of ridicule.

And yet, Don Quixote had a rare, precious gift: to see the world through optimistic, even idealistic eyes. He embodied the romantic notion of chivalry, and he saw and treated people not like they were, but instead as the very best they could be. And he demanded the very best of himself, too. Perhaps this is one reason why my dad loved and identified with the words in this song:

To dream ... the impossible dream ...
To fight ... the unbeatable foe ...
To bear ... with unbearable sorrow ...
To run ... where the brave dare not go ...
To right ... the unrightable wrong ...
To love ... pure and chaste from afar ...
To try ... when your arms are too weary ...
To reach ... the unreachable star ...

This is my quest, to follow that star ...
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far ...
To fight for the right, without question or pause ...
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause ...

And I know if I'll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I'm laid to my rest ...
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach ... the unreachable star ...

What is the impossible dream, the unreachable star? Is it to live a life of goodness and integrity in a world that so often rewards unkindness and dishonesty? Is it to believe in the fundamental goodness of humankind, when we are surrounded by so much evidence of evil? Is it to believe that a family made up of flawed, frail people is destined to endure into an eternal, celestial union? Is it to believe firmly in the goodness and power of a merciful Savior, in the face of tremendous personal suffering? Is it to even believe that death, the universal end of all of us, will someday be conquered?

I believe it is all of these things and more, which are exemplified by the life of my father. To have a logical, math-loving engineer like my Dad believe so passionately in such romantic notions proves that today is indeed, a day of miracles. (that's a joke)

Dad was accomplished in his career, with his name on numerous patents. He had the lowest employee churn rate in his organization of any of the engineering departments, in part due to the way he treated those who reported to him. He helped to pioneer technological developments in the ultrasound, mobile X-ray, and digital imaging spaces. He was well respected by his coworkers, and even had the honor of having a conference room named after him when he retired. During his years living with cancer, he received wonderful support from friends at work, for which he was always grateful. He spoke of how the kindness and faith of coworkers here at home, as well as contacts across the world, touched his heart and helped him appreciate the goodness that he strongly felt was universal in God's children, across all cultures, countries, and religions.

Dad had his passions besides work. He was accomplished musically and spent years leading choirs and congregations in singing the hymns of Zion. He loves music that celebrates the kindness and mercy of the Lord, and enjoyed singing in community productions of Handel's Messiah every Christmas season. A highlight of this tradition for his family was watching as Dad guest-conducted the Hallelujah chorus a couple of years ago, an honor that left the chorus in tears. We all knew how deeply Dad felt the truth of the praises we sang to the Savior: "King of kings and Lord of lords!"

Dad loved the beautiful world God has given us, and was determined to share that love with his family. He spent countless hours lugging unwilling, grumpy children along dusty desert trails and steep mountain paths, until we all eventually learned to love it like he did. My sweet Mom, who does not care much for hiking, was always so gracious to allow Dad his "wilderness time," even if it meant spending a weekend alone at home, or waiting at a trail head when she was pregnant or otherwise unable to hike.

I remember backpacking trips to Naturalist Basin in the Uintah Mountains. We would catch trout and grill them over an open fire. When we were young, Dad always let us keep them, even when they were probably too small to have much meat, and would dutifully clean them as fast as we could catch them.

Dad never got caught up in acquiring fancy equipment or expensive gear, but loved nature for its own sake. Along with the grill for the fish, we would pack in heavy cans of beef stew, which always tasted delicious when heated over a fire in the cold, dark woods. It seemed like there was always the threat of rain, and when I was younger I often remember feeling a little exposed and remote on these trips. But I also knew I was with Dad and had full confidence that he would take care of me, which he always did. I always loved it when Dad would wake up early, climb a hill or big rock, and then welcome the morning sun by beating his chest and emitting a loud, Tarzan yell.

Dad was unfailingly kind and considerate of others. He always went out of his way to give others the benefit of the doubt. The one time I remember him ever saying anything critical of a neighbor (which was probably deserved), he came back later and apologized to me for having set a bad example. He always seemed to look for those who had been forgotten or felt unfairly treated, and would try to help them along. He understood what it felt like to be on the outside looking in, and tried hard to help others feel accepted and loved--especially those who struggled to fit in. This rare, precious perspective endeared him to many family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and others. He chose to see others as the Savior sees them, overlooking faults and focusing on the good.

Dad was a wonderful family man. His love for his wife and children is evident in the careful way he worked to provide both temporally and spiritually for our welfare. He worked hard in his career and has spent countless hours planning how to provide a comfortable retirement. He took his job seriously to lead out in the essential family functions of prayer, scripture study, family home evening, and church participation, setting what I recall as a flawless example.

He loves and supports his wife and children the very best that he knows how to do. He came from an imperfect family, and was an imperfect husband and man himself, but he is also a man who took the circumstances and learning that life gave him and improved upon it, leaving his family and the world better than he found it.

As his life began to be graced with grandchildren, he looked forward to developing a relationship with each new arrival. He took on the revered and sometimes mystical role of "Papa:" that gray-haired, quiet man who always hung out with the cookie-and-hug-bearing Grandma. It sometimes took a little time for a very young child to warm up to Papa, but Dad was always patient--and always won the little heart's affection.

Dad is a good neighbor, a good friend, a good teacher, a good leader; he is a successful engineer and manager; he is a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather; he is a man of talents, tastes, and passions. But above all these--or perhaps as evidenced in all of these--there is one central theme of Dad's life that ties all his accomplishments, efforts, hopes, dreams, and legacy together: Dad is a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Dad spent his adult life focused on seeking out and serving his Savior. He served a 2-year mission for his church in Germany, followed later by about a decade of service with local missionary efforts. He was passionate about the good news of the gospel, and the great desire of his heart was to share with others what gave him so much joy. I remember as a young boy being challenged by Dad to read selected passages from the Book of Mormon that he had marked for the full-time missionaries to distribute to interested readers. The scriptures formed a sort of chain, where I would read one passage and then follow instructions to read another. They included scriptures that became life-long favorites of my father, like this prophecy of the Savior's mission:

For behold, I say unto you there be many things to come; and behold, there is one thing which is of more importance than they all—for behold, the time is not far distant that the Redeemer liveth and cometh among his people....

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

...and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

As I read these scriptures as a young boy, I felt something stirring within me--a feeling of peace, joy, and absolute conviction that I was reading the truth. That was the first time I remember that I ever recognized feeling the Spirit of the Lord so strongly, and I look back to that day as the foundation of my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ--and I owe thanks for this experience to my father.

As Dad coped with cancer the last eight years, his relationship with the Savior deepened and progressed. He experienced the Savior's watchful care in many small ways--we sometimes call these the "tender mercies" of the Lord--that reminded him continually that the Lord was aware of his suffering and was buoying him up. Often these tender mercies came in the form of help through other people.

Shortly after his surgery for his first cancer, called "thymoma," he described that he acquired the feeling that he was going to die. The prognosis for thymoma is very poor, with only 2% of patients living more than 5 years after diagnosis. This depressed feeling weighed heavily on him, and early one morning, alone in a hospital room and in near despair, he offered a prayer to Heavenly Father, asking for some help. Almost immediately Mac Christensen, who was the president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the time and knew of Dad's plight because of Mom singing in the choir, showed up at Dad's hospital room and offered to give him a priesthood blessing of healing. In this blessing, the promise was reaffirmed again that he would be healed of this cancer and that his life would be extended--a miraculous promise that indeed came true, as he lived eight more years and died of a different cancer altogether.

Another example of the tender care of the Lord was related to a nurse's assistant who was from Pakistan and probably of a different religion. As she was leaving my Dad's hospital room one day, the thought came to him that he wished she would pray for him. She suddenly stopped, turned around to face him, and said, "I will pray for you."

Dad often spoke of how touched he was that so many in the church, his neighbors, and even his coworkers prayed for him. He said that some told him they didn't normally pray at all, but were praying for him. Feeling the love of his fellow men through their concern and prayers meant so much to him.

As a final personal example, just a month ago I was out on a Saturday doing various household errands when I suddenly had the thought to visit my parents and see if I could help with anything. When I got there, my Dad was struggling to put on a compression sock that he used because the pain medication he was on made his legs swell up. Putting these on is a somewhat physically rigorous process, which meant my mother couldn't help because of her back pain. Dad had exhausted his strength, and he later told me that he had offered a prayer shortly before I arrived and asked the Lord to send help. He did, and I helped to answer that prayer without even realizing it at the time.

There are numerous other examples of sweet, loving kindness showed to my Dad and Mom during the last eight years of cancer--far too many to mention here. To all of you who have cared, who have prayed, and who have offered assistance and answered prayers, please know that your love and concern gave great comfort to my Dad in his time of need.

Through all of this, Dad's love of God and his fellow men increased. He felt at times the intimate caring of a loving, watchful Savior as he suffered. He came to understand in a deeper, more personal way that as the scripture says, the Savior truly did "take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people" and that he would suffer all things so that he might know how to "succor his people according to their infirmities." In the last few years of his life especially, my Dad rejoiced in the opportunity to bear witness of the Savior Jesus Christ and His love.

While this was happening, another transition was taking place in his life: his "second honeymoon" of sorts with his wife, my mother. Cancer seemed to put into focus the most important things in life, and I witnessed my parents grow closer, more tender, and more loving towards each other. Retirement from work brought opportunities for travel together and numerous other ways to spend time together. Dad often spoke of how the tender watch-care given by my Mom comforted him. In his final weeks she scarcely left his side--only to sleep or do a few chores when she was sure that others were there by his bed to watch over him. She loved, and lived, and served as the Savior would have if He were here in person. Mom and Dad's marriage is eternal. They have been sealed together by the priesthood authority that Jesus Christ gives to his servants on earth. That means that Dad's death is only a temporary separation. They are still husband and wife, and that means that Dad will be my dad forever--a comforting balm to each of us as we mourn his passing.

And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach ... the unreachable star ...

The world is a better place because my father was in it. Dad lived, and loved, and served the very best that he knew how. Dad shared his firm conviction of the reality of the Savior Jesus Christ, his atoning sacrifice for our sins, pains and sicknesses, and his triumph over death. Though Dad's spirit has departed for a while, he will live again. He will rise on resurrection morning with the hosts of the faithful and will surely be part of that joyful reunion of heaven and earth.

Dad, we look forward to that day. We pray that you will watch over us until that time and that our lives will make you proud. We love you.