Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dad

Approaching the one year anniversary of his death.

Dad had one flaw: he didn’t accept aging gracefully. In fact, he hated everything about it. The prospect of slowly losing his faculties was one of the great fears of his life.  

So it was a moment of grace when he died suddenly at Orange Beach on April 13, 2014.

It was a Sunday morning--Palm Sunday in fact. Mom and Dad attended an early Mass, ate breakfast together, and then went down to the beach--she with a good book to read, he, never one to stand still, for a long walk down the coastline.  It was during that walk that he collapsed, and the medics called to the scene could not revive him.

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15). So said the sign on the front door of my parents’ home. So lived my father.

On one level, he was a devout, traditional Catholic, a daily communicant, president of the parish council at tiny St. Joan of Arc Parish, the song leader, the usher and the lector. My three sisters, brother and I would tease him, suggesting he should become a deacon, so he could give the homily, too.

But on another level, he was anything but traditional.  In the summer of 1971, he and Mom were introduced to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement by a friend of theirs, and that led to a deep conversion and a life-long commitment to serve the Lord as best they could. We moved downtown to join in a covenant Christian community with two other families, pledging to support each other to live radically Christian lives together. We changed parishes in the move—my sisters and I transferred from the most affluent, suburban Catholic school in Mobile, Al to an inner city Catholic school that had previously been all black. We took in strangers who needed a home: one night it was Carnival workers, once it was a recovering drug addict for a period of a year, another time it was an unwed woman who lived with us for the last few months of her pregnancy, later on, it was simply a medical student, needing a place to call home for his residency.

It would be impossible to list all the many guests we had for dinner, many of whom simply needed friendship. “Mr. Mosely” was a regular: he was an older man, a former alcoholic who lived in a halfway home, obviously damaged by a difficult life, a little smelly and unkept. It didn’t matter to Dad, who would go pick him up for our Thanksgiving and Christmas Day meals and give him a place of honor at our table. For us kids, having Mr. Mosely with us was “normal,” so we never thought it was a big deal.

Every school morning, we’d begin the day with my father ringing a bell at the foot of the stairs—a signal it was time to wake up for family prayer. As a teenager, I hated that bell. “Rise and Shine!” he’d say with too much cheerfulness as my siblings and I grumpily descended the stairs. Of course, by that time of day,  Dad had already said his private morning prayers and run a few miles, so he was rearing to go. That describes him pretty well: cheerful, always rearing to go. 

He often got called on to help people in dire straits. I remember one time a family we knew was evicted from their rental home, and they had to get moved out instantly. They called Dad, and I was drafted, too. The whole house was a complete wreck—nothing was packed, and I remember Dad and I using a snow shovel to simply scoop up what was on the floor, place it in bags, and bring it out to the truck. Dad helped people reroof their homes, rebuild their garages, resurrect clunker cars, install appliances, fix what was broken in their homes. And he did all these things with great cheerfulness and joy—happy to be serving others, happy to live out the gospel admonition to “love thy neighbor.”

He was a lot of fun, too. He had a great sense of humor, loved telling stories, had a few corny jokes that he’d retell over and over—my siblings and I knew the cues that led to those jokes and we tried hard to avoid them, but our many guests at the dinner table often fell prey, much to our father's delight and over our feigned moans. He played ball with us growing up and was very competitive—I remember he once beat me 21-2, playing “one on one” on the basketball goal he made for us in our back yard. There was no "going easy" on us; we had to earn the victory, so it was a great milestone in our young lives when we could actually beat him. If it wasn’t basketball, it was ping-pong, or tennis, or chess. We had many "epic" matches together. 

In fact he was a very fine athlete: in high school he won the tennis doubles championship in Memphis, TN. I remember as a young boy the first time I looked at my father with awe: it was a faculty softball game in Fairhope, AL and the first time my father batted, he jacked a home run on top of a 150 foot bluff in deep right field. The next time he came up, they delayed the game to send three people to scramble up the bluffs in case he hit another one up there, and right on cue, he did so, but they caught it, and everyone stopped playing to laugh for a while.  He was generally fit through out his life, running several miles each day up until he was in his mid-sixties, and then walking thereafter. He cared about his health and his fitness in an admirable way.

He loved Mom. That was the other great constant in our family. Though the two of them were rarely romantic in front of us, we never had reason to doubt they were deeply in love with each other—Dad made Mom laugh a lot, and there was real joy between them. Their love and delight in each other gave real stability to our family. 

He possessed great pride in his children and grandchildren, helped us with science projects or speeches we wrote for student elections, attended every sporting event we or the grandchildren ever played in, and archived much of his grandchildren's activities via video-taping. He wasn't very good as a videographer, however: he'd get too excited if his grandkids did something well, forget he was taping, such that the camera would swing violently up and down, making the viewer sick to his stomach watching. The grandkids got to the point of expecting this: another sign of their grandpa's love and pride in them. They wrote about this and many more things when he died, eulogizing him beautifully here.

His funeral was a testimony to the impact his life made on others: 13 priests and two archbishops concelebrated the Mass, with three deacons attending. But we were also edified by the full Church, representing a great cross-section of Mobile: former colleagues and faculty members, students from the inner city whom he tutored on Saturday morning, with their parents, people whom he had once helped, those who had lived with us for a time, teenagers he had recently taught at McGill or St. Mary's, black/white, young/old, Catholic/non-Catholic, rich and poor--those distinctions didn't matter. His nineteen grandchildren were the lectors, gift-bearers, pall-bearers and altar boys. Dad once told me he wanted his funeral to be a joyful one, a "homecoming" he said, and I think he was likely pleased. For my mother and our family, it was deeply cathartic in a way that a good Catholic funeral can sometimes be. 

It’s been a year since, and yeah, I still miss him. I’ll hear a joke from time to time that I know he’d love, and I miss calling him and laughing with him about it. Did you hear that Mahatma Gandhi was often in poor health because of all his fasting? And that he his feet were often sore because he went barefoot? Or that he had bad breath because of his unusual eating habits? That made him a "Super-calloused-fragile-mystic-hexed with halitosis." Dad would have loved that joke! 

He was a man's man, a great father, and still the most authentic Christian I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.

2 comments:

Bill Denton said...

Its good to be reminded what day it was and just how long it has been. We can loose track and be unable to recall. To be given the correct dates and times focuses us. I remember Neff and I felt very close to him in his life. I also feel very close to you Kathy and your family as well.
I did have numbness and wandering shock About his death. The immediate family must have been totally devastated. We all felt the the loss of a great man. One that loved us with all his strenth. One thing that stuck out to me as something to share was how everywhere I looked at the reception it was not a lack of Neff I noticed but the presence of Neff. I felt that Neff's passing ,to put it the best I can, Neff had not passed but is alive brightly in the togetherness, conversation, and love, of this gathering of people who are him and in him. It was as clear to me then as I looked around the room then as it still exists today. All
his family that is still with us is still him and not very hard to find.
His joy his love and his jokes dry as they may be at times.

Bill Denton said...

Thanks to all the Webers and Families!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!