Dad’s Denouement Part 6: The Funeral
Dad died on a Friday. We planned the funeral for the following Saturday.
Funerals are awful. They are necessary… but awful. It costs as much as a small wedding, but no one wants to be there. There are a ton of details to be worked out and you stress over every one because you don’t want to do a disservice to the deceased… who is the only person you can’t consult about the details.
We made most of our decisions about Dad’s funerals in a family meeting the day after he died. The service would be religious (Dad was a stalwart Presbyterian) so there would be a sermon by the pastor and, after the service, there would be two people speaking in rememberance of Dad. One was his close friend of the last several years, the other would be one of his children.
I’m not going to lie… I wanted that job.
I like writing and I like public speaking. I’m good at it. I don’t speak publicly unless I’ve practiced the entire talk word for word several times. Sometimes I film myself practicing and watch myself. This is a profoundly uncomfortable experience, but it will make you a better speaker.
I wanted this to be something that came from the family, not strictly from me. So I asked all my siblings to contribute a story, something they remembered about Dad, that would really bring his personality to this speech.
The stories I got… well, after several back-and-forth with my siblings, fleshing out details, committing to edits, it is what you see below.
(Note: I have 5 siblings, so to keep some clarity while maintaining some anonymity, we are (in order) CatSis, PoliMath, CombatBro, ChemSis, NeuroBro, and SkinnyBro.)
When you have 6 children like Dad did, deciding who should speak at the funeral can be a challenge. That is why we’ve decided to bring each child up here for a 10 minute remembrance, followed by a 30 minute free-form spiritual jazz odyssey performed by the grandchildren using dad’s favorite instrument, the kazoo. That’s what Dad would have wanted.
Because it would have been funny.
If you were expecting a remembrance that wasn’t funny, you’ve walked into the wrong funeral. Dad was funny. He loved to see people smile, he loved to make them laugh. Dad loved life.
And Dad loved God.
He believed in the covenant, the promises that God passes down through generations, and he wanted more than anything for his children to know God. That’s why I can still recite the Greek alphabet but I do it with the lisp I had when he taught it to me at 3 years old. Dad would have us memorize scripture, memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. And he wasn’t above bribing us into a deeper relationship with Christ. CombatBro earned his place in heaven and also $50 memorize the entire shorter catechism. CatSis made a deal in which a similar knowledge of the divine and hole recitations was how she finally got her ears pierced.
Dad wanted to make sure we were spiritually prepared, anything he could do to encourage us in faith. And not only our spiritual well-being but our martial well-being. If you are in this room and within a few years of one of his kids during our middle school years, there’s a good chance Dad had drawn up contingency plans for pairing you with one of his children.
If that makes you uncomfortable, well, that’s definitely what Dad would have wanted.
Because in addition to loving his God, Dad loved his family.
In particular Dad always held his girls close to his heart. I asked ChemSis for her favorite memory and she doesn’t give me one, she gives me 33… one for every Valentines Day. Because every Valentines Day, Dad gave his girls, Mom, CatSis, and ChemSis flowers and a card. For Mom, this was because she was his dear love. For his daughters, he wanted to make sure Valentines Day was about more than a candy-laden holiday. It was about establishing a precedent and communicating, through his actions, that they were to be cherished, that they were to be held close and special, and that they were not to accept anything less from a boy who wanted to date them. Dad had high standards for himself and those were the only standards he would accept from anyone.
You might think this would make him unapproachable, but it was quite the opposite.
Because as Dad loved his family, he also loved people.
There was a time many years ago when Dad went to some dinner at our church, some awards ceremony or a potluck, I don’t remember exactly. But he and I were sitting next to a man and his son, people we had never met before. The man was stilted, awkward, clearly out of his comfort zone and waiting until the evening could be over. Of course Dad struck up a conversation.
“Hi, I’m Bob Shapiro.”
The man introduced himself.
“What is it you do?”
“Industrial waste” the man replied.
“Oh, what kind?” Dad asked.
The man seemed a little taken aback.
“Interesting. Do you incinerate or dilute it? Or both?”
The man’s eyes lit up. It was clear the conversation rarely got this far. And what followed was a fascinating 40 minute conversation on the methods and challenges of chemical waste disposal. At the end, this man was practically hugging Dad. They were like best friends.
On our drive home, I looked at my dad and say “How did you do that?”
He shrugged. He had a friend who did laboratory chemical disposal at Georgia Tech and he was… just interested in it.
That was Dad. Everything was interesting to him. He accumulated an astounding range of knowledge simply through his curiosity. And he had a talent to connect with people through humor and commonalities that I have never seen in anyone else. He was a great salesman not because he loved products but because he loved people.
Dad loved his family, he loved people, he loved a challenge.
In winter of 1993 Dad took his 3 oldest sons on a long-planned trip to the Virgin Islands. We flew from Atlanta to the island of St. Thomas, took a Ferry to St Johns, and finally, at about midnight a taxi dropped us off at our final destination: campgrounds along the beautiful beaches in the Virgin islands.
As we climbed out of the taxi, in the dead of night, it started to rain.
We walked to our campsite in the rain. We started setting up our tent in the rain. CombatBro and I had set up a tent before, but darkness, rain, and exhaustion slowed our progress and deadened our spirit. And then there was 7 year-old NeuroBro, holding a flashlight as best he could, watching his brothers and Dad set up the tent. Dad wasn’t defeated. Dad wasn’t giving up. Dad wasn’t going to quit, dry us off, take us to a hotel, or look for the easy way out. He was going to do this thing. And we were all going to be HAPPY doing it, dangit!
As NeuroBro recalls, the campsite provided daily threats of drenching rain and mountainous fire ant hills. This wasn’t what most people plan for when they book a family vacation to a Caribbean island, but this was a perfect vacation for Dad. I think he enjoyed that disastrous arrival, and all the daily struggles, because he was doing it with his boys. He wanted us to see and experience the joy he found in the fight, in building something out of a disaster.
That trip was so successful, we returned a few years later, this time with the whole family. Dad didn’t make the girls sleep in the tent, but it still rained. Of course, we were horrible to each other, poking each other and teasing each to the breaking point.
At one point we ganged up on poor ChemSis, who was already feeling a bit left out since the boys all had the tent together. Dad saw this & pulled us apart and then took ChemSis for a walk on the beach to get away from her tormentors. That should be the low point of the trip, but to Dad it was the high point. This was the perfect vacation: taking time with his kids, getting one-on-one time to spend with us, helping us work out any problem that came into our lives, even if that problem was his other kids . A long walk with his little girl where everything is better at the end than it was at the beginning… that was what Dad lived for.
And that the key to Dad’s life. Dad always fought for, alongside, and sometimes with his kids. No matter what came, he never gave up on teaching us, providing for us, helping us to grow, or loving us.
Because Dad loved his family, he loved people, he loved a challenge. But most of all, he loved God.
Dad always stayed up late. I don’t know if he wanted to or if it was some kind of insomnia, but he was always up later than mom. Especially when one of the kids was at the house, after we were old enough, he would stay up with us and have a drink and talk about anything. Relationships, politics, movies, why his youngest son SkinnyBro had yet to produce a prince and heir to the throne. SkinnyBro remembers coming to the house, it was late already, but dad would just stay up and talk and talk and talk.
Dad always cared about us. He always wanted to know about us. That thirst he had for knowledge was never more evident than when he wanted to know more about our lives.
Dad once sat SkinnyBro down to talk about a girl. She is very sweet, yes. She is kind and beautiful and quite wonderful. But how does she feel about infant baptism?
“Well, Dad, she’s Baptist”
And after a long pause: “Well, son. You know how I feel… “ and Dad gave SkinnyBro books to read and explained the exegesis of baptism, the history of it and the covenantal concept underlying it.
And this wasn’t because of the old-fashioned “Presbyterians and Baptists are a different folk, we can’t intermarry” idea. This was because Dad sought out the truth of the Scriptures to understand and internalize their reality. Dad was not a Christian because he was born into it. He found Christ (or as he would insist I should say, Christ found him) and he absolutely HAD to know what would most please his God and his Savior. He studied and wrestled and came to know God and it was deep in his heart that we do the same.
And it would be a betrayal of his memory to finish this without saying that he would want the same for everyone in this room. The peace that he had as he lay dying, he wanted that for you. The love of his Savior, he wanted that for you. A desire for God that kept him up at night, that pushed him to buy and devour way too many theology books, biographies of the saints, histories of the church, and by the way, if you are interested in the complete set of Calvin’s Institutes, I don’t know why we have three of them, please see me after the service…
But this desire gave him knowledge, gave him passion, and gave him peace in these last months. And he wants that peace for everyone here. That is Dad’s legacy. Let’s always remember it.
After the funeral was over, I was approached by several people, many of whom I had not seen in many years, and told that they loved the eulogy for Dad.
I started writing this series before Dad died and at that time it was not just about Dad, but about coming back home after many years. The response to Dad’s eulogy reminded me of that. I’ve been speaking publicly and internationally for 10 years and nobody here knows that. To many of them, their experience of me went straight from “awkward high school kid who often got in trouble” to this eulogy. I went away, grew up, and became someone completely different and that is startling.
And it makes me think about my Dad and who he became while I wasn’t looking. Except for the last one about SkinnyBro, I don’t think any of those stories happened this century. Some parts of who Dad was the last 15 years of his life are lost to me. And that’s such a deep tragedy in my mind, the only way I can cope with it is to try not to think about it.
I don’t want this piece to turn into a “here’s how you should act with your elderly parents”. One thing I’ve learned in all this is how incredibly lucky I am that I had a Dad who I wanted to know better. And I was blessed enough to know this was coming and take some time to talk to dad about his life, to learn a little more about him. It was an honor to be able to share that man with the other people who knew him.