Today is the day my dad’s cremains will be interred at the East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery. It’s been eight months and two days since he died of COVID-19 complications, and just typing that out, “eight months and two days,” makes me bristle. Under normal circumstances, his funeral would have been within a week and not two-thirds of a whole year later. Under normal circumstances, he would most definitely still be alive today.
Several hours after the honors ceremony at the cemetery, we will have a Celebration of Life dinner at a Holiday Inn, the location being my sister’s brilliant idea to honor a man who managed hotels, mostly Holiday Inns, throughout his forty-five-year career in the hospitality business.
People will be speaking at this Celebration of Life, telling stories about my dad. Jim is speaking. Some of his Vietnam brothers will be speaking. His lifelong best friend Dave, who couldn’t make it in person, has sent a story on video for us to play.
My mom asked my sister and me to speak. I started out thinking that, as one of his two beloved daughters, it was the right thing to do, to tell some dad stories and try and verbalize how much he will always mean to me.
Here’s the thing: I hate public speaking. Hate, with a capital H. It’s an odd thing to say, considering I co-produced and co-hosted Chicago’s “Listen to Your Mother” show for six years and did just fine each time I stepped out on stage and into the spotlight. I spoke at my parents’ fiftieth anniversary vow renewal seven years ago, giving my personal take on their marriage and what it meant to me to grow up in such a loving home, to an audience of their closest friends and family members. Still, talking about my dad at his actual funeral just seems like…too much.
Originally I had it in my head that I would be disappointing him if I didn’t speak today. After giving it an incredible amount of thought, I decided against it. It would be insanely difficult, and as Jim pointed out in one of our discussions about it, I have done lots and lots of difficult things already, since he died. If I want to take a pass on this one, it’s totally okay. My dad wouldn’t be disappointed at all; he’d be fine with my exercising my privilege as his daughter, simply sitting and listening to the stories told by others. “You have to do what you need to do, Toots. I’m proud of you either way,” he’d say, shrugging his shoulders and then definitely smiling and making a sarcastic comment meant completely in fun, just to see if I’d laugh. And I would. I always did.
I wasn’t even going to write anything at all, because I didn’t want to sit and struggle with the words. I felt like I put everything into the obituary I wrote for him, and I had kept track of so many of the funny things he said over the years via my blog and statuses on Facebook, making my love for him perfectly clear. I felt like the tone of whatever I would cobble together for today would pale in comparison. Yet I woke up at 1:00am on Wednesday and these thoughts came rushing in, so I went right to my laptop to type it out before it all left my brain during the restless remainder of the night.
Like any other person who has lost a beloved parent, I think of him every single day. I spend a lot of time smiling at all of the great memories I have. Often I laugh, thinking about something he said or did. Sometimes I cry. I know that while I will learn to live my life without his actual presence, he will always be with me.
Unlike anyone who has lost a parent for any reason besides COVID-19, I cannot get away from his cause of death and so the mental trauma continues on a daily basis. COVID-19 oozes into every news broadcast, is all over social media at any given moment, and is usually near the top of any conversation I have with someone. Its constancy created a well of simmering anger just below the surface for me, and what makes it bubble over the most are the people who won’t wear a mask and won’t get vaccinated because they think their choices don’t affect others. In the case of a global pandemic, personal choices actually do affect others. They affect everyone.
I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that my dad, who was weeks away from being able to get the vaccine when he died, would’ve been the first in line to get it in order to protect himself, his loved ones, and the community at large in order to get back to some semblance of normal life. Knowing that indisputable fact while seeing countless people each and every day refuse to do the right thing makes my blood boil.
You see? I can’t even write a tribute to my dad without mentioning the pandemic.
My dad was the funniest person on earth. Truly, he was. But he was so much more than that. He was super smart and extremely down-to-earth. He was opinionated but loved discussion. He was a great problem-solver and advice-giver. He was a grill master. He was a talented stained glass artist. He loved people-watching. He was fiercely patriotic. He was a spot-on Muppet impressionist. He was a fabulous public speaker. He loved dogs. He was an excellent hotel manager. He always checked in when something stressful was going on. He was a superb provider. He was an amazing friend. He was the very best kind of family man, an incredible husband, father, and grandfather, always looking out for us.
When Jim and I Facetimed with him the night before he died, he told us to take care of each other. He told my mom and sister–who were allowed to visit him in person on the hospital’s COVID floor because they too had COVID at the time–not to be scared. We are all looking out for each other, not because he told us to in his final hours, but because it’s what he taught us our whole lives by his actions.
I was lucky enough to have fifty-two years of him telling me how proud he was of me and how much he loved me, from Day One until that very last conversation. And for the rest of my life, I will remain infinitely proud to be his daughter.