This poem by Dylan Thomas is loved by my father who is in hospice care right now. It pretty much sums up his attitude toward living…never idle and always in a continuous fight for light it its many forms. Whether it was the light of intellect (he has four degrees), the light of truth (his involvement in politics, from school boards to general elections), the light of faith (a devout Catholic and when he retired from teaching, a second career as a deacon), the light of love (married to my mother for 60 years and with her raised 5 very different and exceptional children). A jack of many trades, he was always planning the next great thing and the reality of Alzheimer’s and cancer has altered those plans, leaving the many in his stead whom his light has touched to continue to rage against darkness and be champions of the light.
My father has always been quite the orator. Whether it was Shakespeare or the Gospel, his voice commanded the moment, his inflection amplified and diminished words in perfect measure and cadence. Once, after he was done reading the Gospel at church, without thinking, I naturally started clapping instinctively as if it were a performance. Of course, I was embarrassed when I realized that I was the only one clapping, but I knew by the gentle laughter that I had done what everyone else had wanted to do in that moment. Words matter to my father, he required good grammar and for us to speak intelligently. Ignorance was simply unacceptable, as was the cruelty of gossip and unfounded innuendo. He held high standards for his children and his students because he had the uncanny knack of recognizing other people’s potential even when they, themselves, could not. That is the greatest gift he could give us as a teacher, to help see ourselves in the fullest light. He wasn’t always successful, but always maintained hope. Even as his cognition wanes, I still see the light he sees in me, reflected back in his face whenever he looks at me.
My parents and I have often sat around the dining room table and talked about theology and the world at large for hours. In fact our whole family has spent many hours around a table laughing and telling stories. Those kinds of conversations began by having dinner at the same table all together growing up. We all shared an appreciation for the absurdity of our human condition and the hilarity of these moments gave us stomach aches from laughing so hard at all our escapades. Our dinner table was as much a place for talking as it was for eating. Dad, at the head of the table, was the inspiration for much of the conversation. I think I picked up my sense of humor and storytelling from that dinner table. I remember him telling stories of reciting Macbeth in a Swedish accent, or all his English classes wearing orange on St Patrick’s day (you Irish Catholics can figure it out) and the stories of his time in the Navy, or growing up down the street from Charles Schulz who wrote the Peanuts cartoon. He had as many serious stories of intervening to help students, parishioners, and many who struggled. The best advice I ever got before I started teaching was from my dad. He said: Be prepared, never raise your voice, always look them in the eye, never talk down to them, and always hold them to their highest selves and more times than not they will rise to the occasion.
In a recent conversation about heaven he had with my younger sister, he contemplated whether he had done enough in his life. While surprising, given everything he’s done, I understand what he meant. My father always knew there was so much more to do, that the Kingdom of God was hardly finished and he wanted to be there to see how it all turned out. My prayer is that he will have a front seat to all the action, to celebrate and guide us from above while we continue to refuse to walk gently in this life and carry on his legacy of fighting for the light.