Friday, November 24, 2006

About my Dad

I spoke at my father's funeral last weekend, which was even harder than I expected it to be. Here's what I said:

In the first few days that my dad was in the hospital, the thing that kept rattling around in my head was all the parts of him that I see in myself. Initially, I was thinking only of the sort of big-picture things, but almost as soon as I arrived here and started talking with my brothers and Mom, we’d start talking about the little things—things like his workaholic tendencies, or put a different way, his sheer delight in his work. Or like books needing to be in just the right order on the shelves. Or the idea that if you want something done right, you need to do it yourself, which is why Dad wrote his own obituary and planned his own memorial service. And each time something like that came up, I’d say, “Adding that to my list...” It’s become a running joke this week, something that we laugh about as we three sons of David Wyatt see so many facets of him in ourselves and in each other.
I suppose any of you that knew him well have heard him talk about his sons. Several people have told me in the last few days how often he spoke of us, how he positively beamed with pride at the mention of us. I’m sure you’ve heard him say that we all love language—we enjoy the interplay of words, appreciate a fine pun or shaggy dog story, spay with ploonerisms—sorry, play with spoonerisms—and take delight in crafting sentences and paragraphs and narratives lining up words in just the right order, like those books on his shelves. That’s on my list. 
And you’ve heard him say that we all love music. We all have our different tastes and our different skills as performers, but we all of us perform and listen and compose we bathe in music the way our father did. All of us had the pleasure of appearing on stage with Dad at least once, and all of us have stood beside him in church, blasting out carols on Christmas Eve, then later gathered around the piano to sing more quietly together. As we were pulling together the music for this celebration, following Dad’s directions, I observed that Dad had great taste in music. And I should know, because I inherited it.
I’m pretty sure Dad also boasted about how the three of us all use computers. We can certainly trace that back to the first Texas Instruments computer he bought and plugged in to our television. We all played games on it, wrote programs on it, and worked our way to a comfort and familiarity with computers that has helped us all make our livings as adults. More importantly, we all—father and sons and mother, a little later on—came together around computers like nothing else in our lives. And that’s true to this day. Let me tell you, we got quite a kick out of gathering here this week and each pulling out our Apple PowerBook laptops: Doug has the big 17-inch PowerBook, Andy has the medium-sized 15-incher, and I have the little 12-inch.
And that’s really the most important thing, right there: family. Dad was fiercely devoted to his family—to his parents and brothers and sisters as well as his wife and sons. He spoke the other day about how he has been blessed with three generations of saintly women: his father’s mother, his mother, and his wife. His brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, and all their children, were some of the most important people in my life during my childhood, a fixture of every family vacation I can remember. I will count my life a success if I can manage somehow to be the kind of son, the kind of husband, the kind of brother, and the kind of father that he was.
Here's a story about the kind of father he was. I have a vivid memory of the day my first dog died. She was clearly very sick, but I had plans to go—gosh, I feel like it was skiing. Maybe that's why I never went skiing again. Dad took her to the vet while I was gone. When I returned home, he tearfully told me that she was gone. I remember being struck by his tears. Dad didn’t used to cry much, and I never thought he was very fond of that dog.
So back in May, my son lost his first pet. It was a triops, a little crustacean akin to both horseshoe crabs and Sea Monkeys. We hatched it in April, and it grew to be about 2 inches long. Then one Friday morning in May, after he left for school, I noticed that it was on its back and not moving its legs much. That night Carter and I were out late, and we came home and put him straight to bed, but I noticed that the triops had stopped moving entirely. I didn't tell him until Saturday morning. He took it very well, I guess because he always knew that it wouldn't live long. He alternated between tears and talk of mummifying it, all actually very sweet.
And I finally realized that Dad's tears all those years ago had almost nothing to do with his feelings for the dog and everything in the world to do with his feelings for me.
That was my father: he delighted in our joys and accomplishments, and grieved in our sadness.
In his notes for his memorial service, Dad suggested a way to introduce these eulogies. But I want to use it to end them. He started off with a snippet of dialogue from Man of La Mancha:
"My friend, I have lived almost fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger . . .cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle . . . or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words . . . only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question: ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Perhaps to be practical is madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it ought to be."
Dad went on to write, "Now, that’s rather cynical; but the real point is in the final sentence: that is, that I rather quixotically have refused to see life as it is: I prefer life as it ought to be. And there is hope for Humankind so long as some still tilt at that particular windmill."
That was my Dad.
Life as it ought to be. That is, without a doubt, the most important thing I have inherited from Dad: his defiance of what is, his hope for what can be, and his willingness to live his life as it ought to be: passionately and compassionately, joyfully, energetically, courageously. Dad lived for a decade with MS, never letting it slow him down or keep him from traveling the world and pursuing the work he loved. That’s how life ought to be. His sense of humor, skewed as it sometimes was, his ready laugh, his kindness and concern—that’s how life ought to be. That’s how all our lives ought to be.
I look around this room, full of people whose lives have been touched by Dad’s life, and I see how profoundly he has left the world a better place than when he entered it. Through his teaching, his life on the stage, and especially as our Dad, Mom’s husband, a loving brother—Dad made the world more like what it ought to be. His students carry on that work. His fellow performers, maybe even his audiences carry it on. And his family will always strive to do the same, in his honor and his memory.
Thanks, Dad. 

Read his obituary in the New York Times and the L. A. Times. Both are more accurate than the one in Bangkok's The Nation, which was unfortunately picked up by the AP.

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