My father was a great fan of Mark Twain. He had a couple of Twain quotes he loved to recite, and one in particular he liked to recite around me:
"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
I could never really think of dad as ignorant, even when I was fourteen. He was a walking encyclopedia, an encyclopedia I consulted daily. But he was an easy man to underestimate. In part this was because he was a great listener, and like all great listeners would rather hear than be heard. That was another one of his favorite Twain quotes:
"Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
But he was also easy to underestimate because he tended to underestimate himself. He would have been astonished, genuinely astonished, at the outpouring of love and admiration that has washed over our family in the last week. And there is enough of my father in me that I have been astonished as well.
Friends of mine, some of whom I thought barely knew dad, have called or sent word from as far away as Vienna and Taipei to say that my father changed their life for the better. My oldest friend, who is now a mountain climber and a nature photographer, astonished me by saying he might never have become any of these things if it hadn't been for my father. As a boy his eyes were opened to the beauty of nature because dad invited him to join us on backpacking trips, the first my friend had ever taken. I never realized until this week how much that simple gift meant.
Another of my best friends dropped everything and flew in from LA today to attend this service. My father, I know, was like a father to him. Yet another friend sent this short and simple message, which helped me see dad through new eyes:
"I've spent a few moments this morning reflecting on the few conversations I had with your father, and on the march of time in general. I'm one of the many, I know, who feels enriched from my association with the good family this man headed."
I like this message because it gets at a core truth: our good family was, is, and will continue to be my father's greatest accomplishment. Everything my mother and my sister and I have been able to achieve in the last 40 odd years was built upon the slow but sure foundation he laid. He was the quiet at the center of our storm. If I look deeply enough, many of the passions or struggles or personal journeys I think of as my own actually began with a quiet nudge from dad.
One of the great pleasures I shared with my father, from the time I was very young, was conversation - long, meandering, philosophical conversations, often at night as we walked around the block. On one such night, when I was about eight, mom sent him to the grocery store and I tagged along. As usual he bought whatever it was he had to buy and then spent a half hour (this used to drive mom crazy) leafing through all the paperbacks on the book rack. I remember this night because he picked out one book - I could tell by the way he held it that there was something special about it - and bought it and then gave it to me. That book was The Hobbit, and it eventually led me to the Lord of the Rings. And that in turn led me to Dante and Beowulf and Homer and a whole world of books that changed and continues to change my life.
As I grew older my half of our conversations evolved from heartfelt questions to inane teenage chatter to sophomoric debates. I was trying to differentiate myself from him, and at times I was pretty hard on the old man. This was done in an atmosphere of love and mutual respect, but as I look back now I see that I was underestimating him, in the same way and for the same reasons he so often underestimated himself.
What Dad couldn't see from inside his own life, and what I couldn't see until his life was complete, was the same thing that George Bailey couldn't see in the movie It's A Wonderful Life. George Bailey saw himself as a very ordinary man. And because he was a man of great intellect and potential, he sometimes saw his ordinary life as a kind of failure. It was not until the angel took him out of his own life and showed him the profound connections between his life and every other life in his community, that he was finally able to see himself for the hero that he was.
My father was a George Bailey. And just as George's friends came together and emptied their pockets for him when he was in trouble, so all of you have joined together in this celebration of his life. I only wish he could have seen it, because he never would have believed it.
John Cartan, April 1998