It’s been a year since I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at the funeral of my dad, John (“Jack”) Vernon Sadler. He was 69, which seems to me to have been far too young and far too soon. I feel like I was just getting to know him. This tribute is for you, Dad.
I was born the youngest of six kids and most of us spent our childhood with Mom and Dad out at Chemong Lake. When I think of my dad now, that’s where I picture him — out at the lake, 24th of May weekend, with the sun just rising, the lake as clear as glass, with both the day and the summer promising to be beautiful, and him standing there strong and confident ready to tackle the day’s work of setting up our “campsite” for the summer.
But I can also remember when I first realized my big strong father wasn’t immortal. It happened when I was about nine or ten years old. He had just had his first heart attack, and I saw him in the hospital with oxygen tubes and IVs running everywhere, and he looked so weak that I thought he was never coming home. And I hated that hospital for doing that to my father. And I hated him at the time for not being stronger.
And yet, after having seen my parents get older and my father in the hospital time after time, I know now that he was probably embarrassed to be there. He had always been the strong one for us, never much one for expressing emotions. I don’t even know if I said much when I was there visiting him — I know I didn’t go very often that week. But the event passed, and he grew almost as strong again, and we all went into denial until the next time, a pattern that would repeat over the years.
Yet, with his strength returned, we spent most weekends at the lake. There were few occasions at home that required “formal” clothes, except for special events like weddings etc. And when I occasionally needed a slightly more formal look — a tie, no jacket — I would just borrow a tie from my dad. He didn’t have a wide selection, but there was one that I loved and borrowed often, perhaps more often than he himself wore it. It was a red tie.
It’s hard to describe that tie objectively because the tie represents so much to me. My father and I always used to laugh about my borrowing it since he himself rarely wore it. I even remember the first time he taught me to tie it. I was somewhere around 15 years old I suppose, and I can remember my father standing behind me, awkwardly reaching around to tie it in front of me. And when he was done, the length was way off, forcing us both to laugh. For a long time, the length of my tie was often a little off when I tied it — it took me years to be able to get it right on the first try, which is a good indication of how rarely I needed to wear it. But each time I tie a tie, and the length is off, I remember the first time with Dad standing behind me. And it makes me smile. 🙂
Like my father, I had never been particularly comfortable with expressing emotions, but when I went to law school out west, I made sure before I left that I told both my parents that I loved them, and gave them each a hug and a kiss. I knew I wouldn’t get home very often, and I knew too that I might have to return home for a funeral. My father’s strength had never fully returned after any of the attacks, and he was beginning to have problems with circulation, etc. I think Dad was kind of surprised by my parting words, and a little uncomfortable too with me moving across the country.
And I remember him saying “Right-o, boy” while giving me a quick hug and pat on the back.
While away at school, I talked to my parents fairly often. Normally this would be 45 minutes talking to Mom and 5 minutes to Dad. My father once joked with me on the phone that it was harder for him to talk to me than with the other kids because he wasn’t sure what to ask me about — I didn’t have a wife and family, and I didn’t have a car for him to ask about! So we just talked about anything and everything. Every time I finished talking to either of them, I made a point of making sure I told them that I loved them. If I forgot, it would bug me enough sometimes that I would call the next day “just to talk”, but in reality just so I could tell them as the call ended.
My father seemed to mellow somewhat over time, perhaps with age or with the emotional distance provided by the telephone, and even though he caught me off guard the first time, he got in the habit of always saying “I love you too”. As time progressed, I started to talk to my father more and more each call, and sometimes, probably to both our surprise, we would find that the “short” call had been over an hour and I had only talked to Mom for a small part of it.
After I had been gone for just over a year, and was moving back to Ontario, my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year. I told them I wanted a tie like Dad’s since I wasn’t living at home any longer and I couldn’t just borrow it whenever I wanted it. I had repeatedly looked for one like it, without success. But Dad found one for me somewhere. In fact, he found one that was even a little nicer shade which I liked even better, so it became the “new red tie”.
That same Christmas, I remember running into a friend of my father’s on the street. Although I hardly knew the man, he asked me all about my exams, how I liked living in residence, whether or not I was enjoying law school. He asked some other questions about the rest of the family and how we were doing, and I realized just how proud my father must have been of all us — when he saw his friends, he apparently never stopped talking about us and bragging about where we were and what we were all doing.
Now that I was living back in Ontario, and only a few hours from home, I went fairly often to visit on weekends. And I made a new promise to myself: each time I went home, as I had on the telephone, I told them in person that I loved them. While living away, I had come to realize how important it was to me to say it while I still had the chance. I was sure that they knew how I felt, but I also wanted them to hear it. Nothing major, and usually it was a quick hug and kiss for each, followed by a quick “I love you” and “I love you too”, and out the door I went, but I still wanted to say it. And as with the telephone, if I forgot, I would call them the next day to “talk” so that I could say it when we hung up.
One weekend when I was home, I was late leaving, and I wanted to get on the road quickly to make it back to Ottawa before it was dark. As I was heading out the door, with a quick kiss to my mom on the way and waves to other visitors, etc., trying to remember if I forgot anything, wondering if I needed gas and where the nearest open station was, I forgot to tell them both that I loved them. My father didn’t forget however.
He was at the end of the hall, near the door, waiting to open it. As I started through the door, rushing of course, he said those three simple words. I mumbled some reply, climbed in the car, drove around the corner, and pulled over because I couldn’t see for the tears. I don’t know what my girlfriend at the time thought, but it was the first time, at least in recent memory, that my father had ever been the one to say it first. And although I know his saying it “first” doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, it certainly overwhelmed me that day.
Unfortunately for me, his time with us passed all too quickly, and as I said, I found myself last year writing an eulogy for my father. There were so many things I could have said, many of which I’ve said here instead because the all-too-brief eulogy needed to encompass more feelings than just my own. I was honoured to have the privilege to pay tribute to my father in that way, but like most grieving families, we also had some private secondary rituals, and there are three that remain fresh in my mind.
First, the day before the funeral, our family sat around the often-used kitchen table. We laughed and cried as we remembered our father, our Dad, and his love for stories. Many of the stories we told each other were stories we had indeed heard him tell others, always with emphasis on the funny, incredulous parts. I think that I share jokes via e-mail and love reading because my Dad instilled in me a love for jokes and stories, and for the art of telling both. It has also fueled my love for movies, which to me is just storytelling in a different form.
Secondly, the Royal Canadian Legion did their poppy service. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a bunch of core Legion members who turn out in their Legion coats (blue blazers) with their crests, pins and medals, and perform a honour ceremony. At the end, they all place a poppy on the casket, surrounding my father with poppies. I still have one of those poppies and it’s on my dresser where I can see it each morning. Remembrance Day is definitely a time for remembering for me, as I cannot see a poppy without thinking of my Dad.
The final element that I remember is that many of us put something in the coffin as a memento. My sister had already put a burgundy handkerchief of mine into his pocket, which matched a wine-coloured tie he was wearing that my parents had both loved. But for me, there was no other choice for a memento…I tucked his red tie inside his jacket, along with the simple tie clip he had given me years earlier.
Much of that day is still a blur in my mind. I had intended to wear my red tie, but it was a little too emotional for me, and I opted for a wine tie similar to his. And, although it has been a year since that day, I have only been able to wear that red tie once and not for long. I have picked it up dozens of mornings, and it is my favorite tie still, but I place it back on the rack. I would like to wear it occasionally, even if only on his birthday, or the anniversary of his death, or with a poppy on remembrance day. Or just a day where I need a bit of an emotional boost to get out the door.
I know I will never part with it, but each time I touch the tie, the loss is made real again and sometimes I break down. I certainly broke down on the day of the funeral. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to do the eulogy in a more “professional” manner, but instead I cried my way through it. I can’t help feeling from time to time that it wasn’t “good” enough, that I simply could have done a better job, and that I let my dad down. He certainly wasn’t perfect but I feel like he deserved the best, even if he would never have thought so himself, and for me, the eulogy I gave wasn’t it.
I was extremely fortunate that I had the best relationship I ever had with him during the final years of his life. But, as most people who have lost a parent already know, there are a multitude of little things in any given day which remind you of your loss. Books that I’ve read, jokes that I’ve heard, stories that I’ve been told…they frequently make me think, “Oh, Dad would have liked that one.” I learned an amazing mime joke in 1997 that I think he would have liked (don’t ask — it is all hand gestures, and can’t be sent by e-mail!).
People often say they would give anything to talk to someone one more time; I would be willing to settle just for the warm comforting feeling knowing that he was there, that I could call him, even if I didn’t. Somedays it seems like a long time, almost a lifetime without him; other days, I can remember him so well, that the year doesn’t seem like much time at all.
I have done a nostalgic trip out to the lake where we used to go, where I still picture my father, and the area is almost gone now as developers have put up houses. One more “tie” that is lost, I suppose. But I know that I have the one that symbolizes the loss to me because it is so much more than just some piece of cloth. And the irony is that the tie is not that “nice”. It’s a odd shade of bright red that is almost impossible to match. Even if I could wear it, it doesn’t go with anything! 🙂
So, if some time you see me wearing a bright red tie, one that seems out of place, and that seems to match nothing else that I’m wearing except maybe a poppy, you’ll be wrong. Because it matches my memories, and that’s more important to me than transgressing the latest fashion trend.
I miss you Dad.