Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Gifts My Father Gave Me

Today is my dad's birthday. He would have been 63 but he died a month after his 61st birthday. In memory of him, I'm posting the talk I gave at his funeral. My mom wanted all of us kids to speak, so this is what I said. I've modified it a little. It's kind of long and you don't have to read it because it's really just about me and him. This is also one of those things that doesn't require seven comments (although you can talk if you want to) because today, it's not about that. It's about my dad, who I miss.

My dad was pretty bad at giving gifts. It’s probably why I looked forward to them so much. Where other girls might get pretty bits of jewelry or other things to spoil them, my presents all came from one of two places: an infomercial or the LA County Fair. He gave me kitchen choppers and desk organizers, plastic hooks for hanging things on my walls, planners, and gadgets galore. For my 30th birthday, I got caulking and insulation so I could weather proof my bedroom. And I loved every one of those dumb gifts because he picked them just for me. He really thought long and hard about every bit of hardware he ever wrapped up and gave to his girly girl daughter. He genuinely thought about what I would need and he would be so excited to give me each present.

I admit even I had to laugh over the caulking, but I might have loved that the best of anything because he did it because he loved me. I guess he could have caulked my room himself, or made my brother do it. Or more probably conned someone I was dating into doing it. But the next Saturday, I was on my knees on the concrete outside, learning how to caulk. And you know what? My room is warm and I don’t have to ever live in a cold room again because he taught me how to fix it.

That, of course, was his true gift. It’s why his badly wrapped presents were beside the point. I want to share with you some of the other gifts our father gave us. My whole life I’ve lived under the threat of losing him. He faced health struggles from the time he was not much younger than I am now. That’s his first gift: thirty years with him I never thought I’d have. And in those thirty years come his other gifts. When I first began to realize that this time, he really might not make it through, I dreaded how much it would hurt to lose him, how much I would miss him. I was afraid I would get a black hole in my stomach and I would just walk around, hurting, feeling a little lost, not knowing what to do next. It didn’t happen. Of course it didn’t happen. This is his next gift: I come from a household of faith. We have been taught by goodly parents. I am not lost: I know who I am. I am Wayne Bennett’s daughter. That means something. He is not lost. I know exactly where he is. He taught me that, too.

He taught us a love for our heritage. We honor those who have gone before us. He filled our childhood with stories of family members who already passed on, teaching us about them so we could keep that connection. One of my best friends is my Pawpaw, my dad’s father. That relationship, that love and respect I have for my grandfather….that’s another gift from my father.

He taught us kids to work hard. While the other kids in the neighborhood got to run around and play in each other’s yards, we were most likely to be found in one of my dad’s many gardens over the years, planting, weeding, or harvesting. This unintentionally produced three pint-sized Tom Sawyers….the neighborhood kids were fascinated by these chores and would beg to do them. I admit we often graciously granted them the opportunity. But the lesson still stuck with us. My brother and sister and I are workaholics, probably. But we can be counted on to get things done. Many times, I saw my father rise from bed, exhausted before he started and in a great deal of pain, to go about his business and see to his responsibilities. How could we do less?

Here’s another gift: advocacy. He taught us to stand for the things that are right, the right way. One of my proudest moments occurred during one of his recent hospital visits. I had come straight from work to check on him and discovered that he had not gotten the things he needed. I am my father’s daughter, so this would never do. I had a couple of polite but pointed conversations and the steady stream of hospital people began within minutes until everything was done. My brother or sister could easily have done the same because he taught us all the same thing: everyone, regardless of who they are, deserves to be treated fairly and you go to whoever you have to go to to make that happen. As the parade of medical staff began, he sat back and grinned, that delighted mischievous grin, and I hope it’s because he saw a little of himself in me. My dad was not one to easily relinquish control, but he had absolute faith that I, my brother or my sister, could take on anyone if need be to see that he got what he needed. The funny thing is, the nurses loved having him for a patient. I think it’s because he never complained. His requests were always for exactly what he needed and nothing more: he didn’t want their sympathy or pity, and what he got was their respect. This won us some odd perks: preferential treatment in the emergency room where they knew us by name and we never had to wait, arguments among the nurses over who got to take care of him on the floor, and as many guests as he wanted, regardless of visiting hours.

I’ll be 32 next month and I’m finally getting married. This, too, is a gift from my father. He waited a long time, to find exactly who he was looking for. Those of you who know my mother well understand exactly how wise he was. I saw what challenges can test a marriage as they struggled through his many illnesses together. I wouldn’t stop looking until I found what he did: his best friend and the person who would stand by him no matter what. My dad never put pressure on any of us to marry and I personally have driven three bishops in succession crazy as I remained single….but my dad understood. You can’t go through life with just anyone. His marriage to my mother, this bond that continues beyond death, is the reason it’s taken all of us kids so long to settle down. It’s a high standard: finding the person who will stand by you through anything, who will share your passions and support you in your dreams, the person you would do anything for. Don’t get my wrong, he was glad to finally see me marrying, but I think even more glad that I looked until I found the right person, just like he did. Some people have been sad that my dad won’t be there for my wedding. But I think this was his way of assuring he absolutely would be.

My dad gave us so many gifts: a strong sense of ourselves, the example of his faith, the courage to stand for what is right, a fierce sense of loyalty to family. It delighted him when any of us kids would unite against him on something because he was proud of that independence and our bond to each other even if it meant being on the other side of an argument from him. I think he was glad to see us thinking for ourselves. He taught us service to others: he threw our home wide open over the years to friends and family who needed a place to live until they were back on their feet. He gave us the gift of his faith. For years I struggled with my testimony and I went my own way for a long time. When I finally made the decision to figure it all out once and for all for myself, I did the things I had been taught. I read the Book of Mormon everyday and prayed to know if it was true. I couldn’t get an answer. I went to my dad and asked him what to do. He looked at me in astonishment. He asked, “Do you mean to tell me that after years of not having a testimony you’re trying to start by asking if the Book of Mormon is true?” I was surprised by the question, but more surprised by what came next. “Just stop,” he said. “Stop. The only thing I want you to do each night when you pray is ask your Heavenly Father if he loves you. Don’t do anything else until you know the answer to that.” It is the most profound piece of advice anyone has ever given me. He had a deep testimony of the scriptures, especially of the Book of Mormon, and he could have borne it. But he didn’t. His greatest testimony he had was of his Heavenly Father’s absolute awareness of his needs and desires and that’s what he sent me to find for myself.

He gave us the gift of unconditional love. Despite wrecked cars, speeding tickets, ditched school (that wasn’t me, by the way), broken curfews, and any other mistakes we might have made, he still loved us. He showed us this by teaching us about consequences and accountability. By 16, I pretty well figured out it just wasn’t worth breaking the rules any more. For example: do you know the natural consequence for hitting a parked car and not leaving a note? Your dad assigns you a five page parenthetically documented essay on your civic responsibility as a citizen in the instance of vehicle damage. (That also wasn’t me, by the way.) It was just easier to get grounded which is exactly why we didn’t get grounded much.

We loved my dad so much. We are so proud to say we are our father’s children. I hope all that was good in him lives on in me and that I teach it to my own children as well as he taught us. To Jamie he gave his determination and joy in working hard, to Amy Lou he gave fierce loyalty and unwavering faith, and to me he gave a strong mind and a passion for words and the power of education. To all of us, every one of us, he gave an example of living a Christ-centered life, friendship, and integrity. His body was so small when he passed on, but no one had a bigger heart, and it's an immeasurable loss.

But it's only temporary.


Kimberly said...

I love that last line. That glimmer of hope that keeps us going through the sorrow.

What an incredible man your father was. Makes me want to be a better parent myself.

LisAway said...

Thank you so much for sharing this, Melanie. What a wonderful tribute. And it really gives so much insight into who you are, and why. I really loved it.

Alison Wonderland said...

That was lovely and very sweet. I'm sure your father loved it.

kelberology said...

I am so glad that I was able to meet your dad (and mom) on several occasions. They are good people. Dads are special!! I have a very tender bond with my dad and adore him and all that he taught and continues to teach me. We are blessed.

Brillig said...

This is such a gorgeous tribute. Thanks for letting me peek into your soul today. Happy birthday to him.

Heather of the EO said...

Lovely post, lady.

He was a wonderful man, that is clear in your words.

Like Kimberly said, makes me want to be a better parent.

You are blessed!

Janette Rallison said...

Wow. Just last night I was thinking about how my parents are both getting up there in the years and wondering how much longer I have with them. I can't imagine not having them there for me even though I know one day I'll have to face that trial too.

What a beautiful tribute to your dad. I hope my kids can one day say the same about me.

*MARY* said...

He sounds like he was an amazing and very wise man. What a beautiful tribute this post is.

charrette said...

I am so glad you posted this! What a beautiful tribute to your dad. I spoke at my mom's funeral, and while I talked about languages rather than gifts, many of the thoughts were similar. I was reliving some of it as I read this: The bittersweet loss, the celebrated memories, the temporary hope, the forever love.

Emily said...

WOW. I loved this. If I'm asked to speak at my dad's funeral, I think I'll just read this and change the names . . .

Pink Ink said...

That's beautiful, Melanie. You are truly lucky to have had him for a dad.