Sunday, October 15, 2023

A Eulogy for Dad

My first and oldest memory of Dad is a shiny one, revisited over the years, rubbed bright with recollection. I was small, perhaps three, perhaps four, which is difficult to tell because my memories don't come with convenient datestamps. Not yet, anyway.

We were out on the back patio of our home on Riverside Drive in Nairobi, and it was a bright and perfect afternoon. The yard was beautiful, a long green sloping paradise that stretched down to a meandering pathway by the Nairobi river. We were playing tag, or catch-me-if-you-can. I would run as fast as my scrawny little boy stick-legs would carry me, and he would pretend to have trouble catching me. Then all of a sudden, I'd be swept up into the air, and tossed upwards, and caught again in strong and careful arms, and he would be laughing.

Then it was my turn, and I would chase him, and he would dance away on his young man's legs, a tennis player’s legs, always just out of reach, always just a step beyond me. As fast as I ran, I couldn't catch him, until I fell down dizzy into the Kenyan grass, and he'd sweep me up again.

There is a time in every child's life when a good father seems magical, heroic, mythical. Dad was just such a Dad, living a life brimming with stories, tales of adventure and excitement that felt pulled from a storybook. We would hear those stories, often at bedtime, as he said goodnight. Tales from his rough and tumble boyhood in postwar Queens. Tales from college, very very carefully edited. Stories from countless moments on stage. Stories of danger and excitement from his world travels, of disappearing into Ugandan prisons or lying flat on his belly in a Tehran hotel as revolutionary guards sprayed it with Kalashnikovs.

As a little boy, the one where Dad shot a crocodile that was menacing a group of kids swimming in an Ethiopian river was a favorite, particularly the part where it was still alive when they tried to pull it into the boat, and Dad impulsively flung himself upon it with a knife, only to realize the knife was a cheap knife they sold to tourists when it broke in his hands. That one was told and retold many an evening. It may or may not have been entirely accurate reportage.

Dad loved to tell those stories, and Lord have mercy, did he tell them often. "Dad, this is the third time in the last forty minutes you've told us that," we'd say. And he'd nod and say, "Well, I can't be sure you've heard it yet," and keep on going. His stories were filled with names, not simply of famous folk, but also of all of you. For example, there was a season when every narrative road seemed to lead to Stan Engebretson, to the point where I and the boys would repeat the name like a liturgical response. “Stan Engebretson,” we’d intone reverently.

Stan, on that hopefully far off day when St. Peter greets you at the Pearly Gates, I’m fairly certain that the first words he’ll say are, “Ah, yes, Mr. Engebretson. We’ve heard so very much about you.”

His telling and retelling was mnemonic, part of how he remembered, how he for so long seemed able to recall an uncanny amount of information about specific events in his life. Every sporting event, every interview or assignment, every performance, all of them came with dates and times and granular specifics about who was there, which would spin into a fractal narrative spiral into another story about that particular person.

Dad's memories were all about people, because it was people that mattered to him. The human beings he encountered were how he defined his life, and the more time you spent with him, the more you mattered. You were part of his story, and part of him. When you appeared in a retelling, it was like a song is committed to memory, or a soliloquy is prepared for performance.

People mattered to Dad. Family, even more so. We were all, he would tell me as a boy, his Preciouses, a sign of both the intensity of his love and the fact that Dad had clearly never read any Tolkien. He doted on mom, incurably romantic as he was, and the stories of their meeting and courtship were repeated and remembered again and again. When Dad became Granddaddy, he delighted in the lives and performances and music of his grandsons, and had an insatiable appetite for stories about their life, news from their world.

Dad’s life was all he could have asked of it. He was satisfied with it. “I’ve had a great life,” he’d say in those last months. “How many people get to live the kind of life I’ve gotten to live?” He felt no lack. 

 His life was enough. 

“That’s one egg,” I can hear him reply, as he did at breakfast so many mornings. “What?” “One egg is un oeuf,” he’d say, a French language joke that he told so many times it would have been disappointing if he hadn’t.

His story, as we understand it, is now complete. He lives whole in the memory of his Maker, just beyond us, seemingly so close but just out of reach, just a step away, dancing out of view, rising up on wings like eagles.

We love you, Dad.