Father’s Day

Father’s Day

I reposted this last year, just after Father’s Day, and decided I’d repost it again today — and probably every Father’s Day hereafter.  It is the note I first posted almost exactly three years, on the morning of my father’s funeral.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers, grandfathers, step-fathers, foster fathers, and anyone else I forgot.




This is a personal note again today.  Read it if you wish.  I will be reading it myself at Mass at 10:30 this morning.  Or at least I will try to.

Ten months ago, when my dad was diagnosed, we all did our best not to get too far out ahead of ourselves, not to panic, not to try to foresee the unforeseeable.  We all knew what a diagnosis of “Stage 4 pancreatic cancer” meant, and we all understood how this would, inevitably, end.  But we wanted to be hopeful, not to plan too impatiently for death when there was still an unknown amount of living to be done.

About a month later, after all the scans and analysis had been done, after the medical oncologists and the surgical oncologists had all given their opinions and had disabused us of any false hope, my mother asked if I would say a few words at the funeral – if I could, that is.  She knew that she would be unable to say anything, and she suspected that my brothers would be unable to either.  So that left me, which was hardly unexpected.

The good news is that from that moment to now, I have had nine months in which to do this, to write the eulogy I always knew I would but never wanted to write.  That’s a pretty long time to get things down and to make sure everything is perfect.  Heck, I wrote a book in half that time.

The bad news is that as I sat in our kitchen two days ago, watching my wife make her lunch, I said to her: “I have no idea what I’m going to say at my dad’s funeral.  Absolutely no clue.”

How does one condense 82 years into a five-to-ten-minute talk?  How does one smash into such a tiny amount of time 51-plus years of memories?  How does one talk about one of the first two people ever to know and love him and one of only a handful of people who ever lived who has and always will love him unconditionally?  How is anybody supposed to make any sense at all out of the fact that one of the people whom he has known literally “all his life” is now gone?

The answer, of course, is that one doesn’t.  One couldn’t.  One shouldn’t even try.

But then what?

As luck or fate or…God would have it, on Wednesday, we met with Father McCabe to discuss, among other things, the Bible verses we wanted to have read at the Rosary last night and at the funeral today.  And as luck or fate or…God would have it, one of those readings spoke to me and helped me clarify the thoughts that had been echoing around in my big empty head for much of those last nine months.

The first reading today, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, ends with the author, presumably King Solomon, concluding that man should pursue neither endless possessions nor pleasure, that he should instead, pursue virtue, which, in turn, will produce a contented life and peace in the afterlife:

There is nothing better for men than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God. 
For who can eat or drink apart from God? 
For to the one who pleases God, he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy….

This statement from Solomon – presumably the wisest man not named Jesus who ever lived – is unsurprising, even typical.  The ancient people of the Mediterranean – particularly the Greeks and the Jews – were fairly consumed with this idea of finding and living a contented life.  The term “eudaimonia,” the coining of which is usually attributed to Aristotle, describes this contended life, a life that leads to and enables human tranquility and flourishing.

The ancient Jews and Greeks did not necessarily agree with one another on the conditions that defined eudaimonia or on the source of the prerequisites to achieve it.  But they did agree on the twin beliefs that virtue is the key to achieving contentment, and that practice is the key to attaining virtue.  Today, these twin beliefs are the foundation of what ethicists and philosophers call “virtue ethics,” the branch of moral philosophy that emphasizes the practice and generational transmission of agreed-upon virtues as the quintessential variable in a stable, peaceful, and prosperous society.

Largely through the works and deeds of Saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Thomas Aquinas, virtue ethics remained a meaningful part of Church practice – and thus, a meaningful part of Western Civilization – for more than fifteen hundred years, long after Solomon and Aristotle had given way to the Cicero and the Stoics.  The Enlightenment, with its embrace of variety in behavior and thought and its overindulgence in the capriciousness of human reason, largely ended the dominant role of virtue ethics in the West.  With the abolition of a universal set of virtues, the universal public practice of virtue became something of a lost art.  With the ascent of Kant’s deontology and Bentham’s consequentialism, the very definition of “virtue” grew murky at best.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  Five minutes is up, bub.  But also: If virtue ethics has fallen out of favor, then why bring it up?  And more to the point, why bring it up at your dad’s funeral, in his eulogy?

One, broad answer that covers both questions is that I am who I am.  A tiger can’t change his stripes, after all, and this is the type of pedantic drivel I occupy my time writing essays and books about.

More to the point, every parent here today knows good and well that while the “public” focus on virtue ethics may have grown archaic, the private practice of it is very nearly the definition of parenthood.  From the day our kids are born, we do our best to instill in them the virtues that we think are important.  Unlike in the movies, there are no teaching “moments” in parenting.  Raising kids is about teaching ALL the time and not just about teaching, but about modeling behavior, showing our kids in our day-to-day lives what is good, what is evil, what is right, and what is wrong.  There are no moments.  There’s only life, which we must live carefully, judiciously, so as not to teach our kids the wrong lessons.  C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century’s few great virtue ethicists, put it in his Abolition of Man:

The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting and hateful.

That takes time and repetition.  But then, that’s a parent’s job.  That’s it.  Teach the virtues. Model the virtues.  Live the way you want your kids to live.  Over and over and over.

When my mom first asked me to say a few words, she also told me that she – and all her siblings (and she has a LOT of siblings) – all loved the eulogy that her brother, my late Uncle Gerry, gave at their mom’s funeral.  I can’t remember exactly how it went, but I know that the gist of it was that my grandma’s kids always knew where their mother was and what she was doing.  If she wasn’t in the kitchen cooking up a storm, she was “in the garden.”  Where’s mom?  In the garden.  Where’s grandma?  In the garden?  Where’s Dolores?  In the garden.  Among the virtues that she modeled for her nine kids and 16 billion grandkids was an affinity for nature, for the abundance the land provided, for the all too often forgotten aesthetic glory of God’s flora. That’s who she was.

Of course, while I appreciated my mom’s helpful suggestion, I also knew that it wouldn’t work for me – or my dad.  If anyone who knew him even a little bit were to ask, “Where’s Rod?” and was given the answer “in the garden,” then 9-1-1 would have to be called immediately, either to tend to my father, who was clearly not well and had wandered off into parts unknown, or for the questioner, who would likely have fainted.  I can’t say for sure – because I was a little kid – but I think my brothers started mowing the lawn at 6 or 7-years-old, because I can’t remember anyone else ever mowing it, certainly not my dad.  The garden, the lawn, etc., were things he found little pleasure in.

So, where would he have been?  If I had asked my mom, where’s dad – as I did, unnecessarily, most of the time – she would respond, “In his office.”  What would he be doing in his office?  Working.  Planning.  Scheduling.  Budgeting.  Listening to Johnny Cash.

As I look back over Western Civilization and I pick out famous aphorisms – which are, in essence, the repetitions of formerly universal virtues – I am constantly reminded of my dad:

Ben Franklin famously wrote: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

At our house, it was well known that all loud noise ended at 9:00; all visitors left no later than 10; TVs got turned down, as did record players (whatever those are); and either you wound down your own day or you went somewhere else.  It was that simple.  Every day (or at least every weekday), my dad went up to read the paper at 9:00 and went to sleep no later than 10:00.  Every day.

If I woke up in the early morning, however; if I had a bad dream or was thirsty or just couldn’t sleep, I knew where to find my dad (even without asking my mom): in his office.  Bills, after all, weren’t going to pay themselves.  Records for fluid-level checks on the cars weren’t going to update themselves.  Budget entries weren’t going to record themselves.

And speaking of budgets…

Franklin didn’t write but DID include in the 1737 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, the adage that “a penny saved is a penny earned.”  My father could save.  Man, could he save.  One of the benefits of his interminably complicated budget system was that he knew, at all times, how much should be spent on every item classification every month and how much had been spent on it.  And thus, he knew what items could no longer be purchased until the next month.

In 1981, he walked into Misle Chevrolet on O Street, looking for a new family car.  It just so happened that the Misles had such a car on their lot – a metallic silver-blue Caprice Classic station wagon – which had been special-ordered but then rejected by the customer when it arrived.  They needed to move it fast, and my dad was just the guy they could move it to.  Sure, they’d lose a little money on the deal, they figured, but they’d gain a customer for life, a guy who got an excellent deal on a car and would, therefore come back time and again for other cars sold at slightly less excellent prices.

But the Misles didn’t know my dad.  They didn’t know that he would drive that station wagon until he had enough money saved in his “car” budget to buy a new one.  They didn’t know that he didn’t finance anything, that he thought credit was foolish, and that he paid every credit card bill in full at the end of every month.  They didn’t know that it would be 16 years before he would walk into their dealership again, this time with the full cash amount to buy the Cadillac he’d wanted for twenty years but denied himself until he had the money to pay for it.

Shakespeare, through Polonius, famously advised that a man should “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

Did any of you here ever borrow money from my dad?  You don’t have to answer.  I know no one did.  It’s a rhetorical question.

Did any of you ever lend money to my dad?  Also rhetorical.

One of the greatest dilemmas of my dad’s later years was coming to grips with the idea that auto manufacturers offered 0%-interest loans.  He HAD the money for the car he wanted.  He had saved and budgeted for it.  He didn’t like loans or credit more generally.  But how does a guy say no to 0%?  Even a CD returns more than that.  How could he not take the free money?

Back to Franklin:  “Lost time is never found again.”

There may, in the history of the species, never have been a man whose every act was as precisely calculated and measured as my dad’s.  Not a second was wasted – ever.  He was never early but was also never late.  Everything was planned out to the microsecond.  Everything.  Always.

Why did my dad go up to bed so early and so consistently every night?  Because that’s what the schedule demanded.

He knew that if he went up to read the paper at 9:00, then he’d be ready to fall asleep by 10:00.  And he knew that if he fell asleep by 10:00, then he’d be able to get up at 5:00.  And he knew that if he got up at 5:00, then he could all the household business – bill, plans, budgets, etc. – done in time to leave for work by 7:00.  And he left by 7:00 because then he could do everything he needed to get done at work and still be home, do his exercises, and still be ready for dinner, promptly(ish) at 6:30.

In other words, there was a method to his lack-of-madness.

With a handful of exceptions – travel, sports practice, and so on – we ate dinner together, as a family every night from the time I can remember until Rick and Mike graduated from high school and moved out.

This may not sound like a big deal today, when every parent is expected to be at every practice and every game their kids plays, but from the time I was in 3rd grade, my dad never missed a baseball game or a football game or a basketball game I played in – until my senior year in high school, when he quit going to basketball games because it drove him bonkers to see me sitting at the end of the bench, picking up a scrub minute or two here and there.  He coached my flag football team.  He coached my basketball team (and Rick and Mike’s).  He coached the Little Chiefs baseball team all three of us played on – or at least he did until the other parents asked him to resign because they were tired of losing just because my dad wanted every kid to play the same number of innings and have the same number of at-bats as all the other kids.

Now, if at this point, you’re thinking to yourself that all of this sounds pretty normal, you’re right.  And that’s EXACTLY the point.  It WAS normal.  It was perfectly and utterly ordinary.  There was no drama, no surprise, no fear, no anxiety.  It was calm.  Steady.  Content.  Ideal for human flourishing, one might say.

I can’t say that I think there are too many people in this world who know what eudaimonia is or how to achieve it.  But my dad was one of them.  He had a good, stable career, doing what he loved.  He came home to a happy wife and three (mostly) happy kids.  He put us all through school.  Saw us all leave the nest and return with grandchildren.  He enjoyed a comfortable life and a comfortable retirement, doing what he enjoyed, never worrying about whether the bills would get paid or whether he and my mom would run out of money before they were done enjoying their life together or if he had enough squirreled away to cover unexpected medical bills.  It was taken care of.  He was contented.  And while some of this was luck, and some of it was God’s grace and mercy, much of it was planned.  It was carefully and meticulously achieved over decades, practicing the virtues that he thought were important – frugality, modesty, practicality, industriousness, fairness, decency, and self-discipline.

More than that, by practicing these virtues, he taught us what he considered important and showed us that if we too practiced those virtues, we could hope and pray to reap the same rewards.  He took three little human animals and trained us to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.  That the fates sometimes conspired against us or, more often, that we sometimes conspired against ourselves and didn’t always learn the lessons he tried to teach is hardly his fault.  It’s a parent’s fate.  All he could was give us the lessons and then, like St. Monica, pray endlessly that we would learn them – eventually.

The other day, when Melissa, my mom, and I went in to meet with Father McCabe about the service today, he offered us a choice of Bible readings from which to choose, verses that are generally recommended by the Church for funeral services.  I went off script for the Gospel reading and asked for the “Parable of the Talents” from Matthew’s Gospel, which is about God’s command that we take what he has given us and do with it as much as we can, that we be good shepherds, good stewards.  That image – the good shepherd, the good and faithful steward — is always what I’ve thought of my dad.  MY good shepherd.  MY good steward.

I have only one regret about the off-script request I made of Father: namely that I didn’t ask for another.  Chapter 13, Verses 4 – 8 of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is generally read at weddings.  But, for the life of me, I can’t see how it doesn’t apply here as well:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated;
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury;
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.