Merry Christmas, 2018

This Christmas was different, of course. The head of the dining room table was empty this year, with Mom passing in October. And the call to Vermont was missing a voice, with Mary’s dad passing in June. I made it through the day pretty well, but for hearing that silly “Christmas Shoes” song, and immediately thinking of Mom.  And yeah, crying.

And yet, there was brightness to the day. We were allowed to sleep in until well past nine; in fact, I was the first up, to start the coffee cake. Sarah was in much better spirits this year than in some past years, which gave me joy to see her happy and engaged. (Are the teen years ending?!?) We exchanged gifts and some very creative ones came out (I have a dozen new pairs of silly socks to wear to work, for example), and of all it, only two duplicates that we have to take care of.

In so many ways, this was a better Christmas than I expected, or have any right to deserve. I know so many others didn’t have a fire in the fireplace, or a turkey dinner, or the luxury of dozing by the first after the second. And as the years go by, the pile of presents gets a little smaller, and that’s okay: I don’t have anything to prove by great hordes of presents. In fact, quite the opposite: it truly isn’t the getting. The day is about much more.

The day is about love. The day is about the most tremendous love, far beyond anything we can imagine, breaking in and disrupting our lives. It’s about all the contradictions inherent in the fact of the Author of the Universe coming to us as a tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent baby in an insignificant backwater town two millennia ago. It’s not about the loss of our parents, it’s about love–the love they had for us, surely, but all the more, the love that wraps them now, the same love that pulls me in and won’t let go. It’s a much, much fuller Christmas than ever before. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas!

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Mourning

The time to mourn is short that best becomes / The military dead. We lift and fold the flag / Lay bare the coffin with its written tag / And march away. Behind, four others wait / To lift the box, the heaviest of loads. / The anesthetic afternoon benumbs, sickens our senses, forces back our talk. (Karl Shapiro, “Elegy for a Dead Soldier”)

The funeral service for Mary’s dad was only ten days ago. The ground, packed down around his urn’s vault, is still settling, the replaced sod still seeks roots. The summer storms lash the stone marker, the crickets and frogs chirp in the sun, another day, then another day.

We each have begun our own return to what mom calls “the new normal,” back to work, back to the rest of our lives. But we cannot shake how different it feels. The kids and I flew back the next evening; Mary stayed on a little longer, before returning to the office and the to-do lists that don’t involve her father’s estate.

But those to-dos are still top of mind. There’s lots to be done with paperwork and setting up the next stages of mom’s life. There’s a camper trailer to sell (anyone interested in a fifth-wheel?), and a truck (funny story about that I’ll have to tell you sometime), and a John Deere tractor or two, and that’s before we look at the absolute piles and stacks of novels that Dad had around, which won’t be needed anymore. Or his tools, or his clothes, or his Army uniform.

And we begin mourning who could not do so at the time. We begin aching because we no longer have to wear our “the strong one” or “devoted child” masks all the time. We begin feeling the incredible, undescribeable exhaustion that mourning brings, and the reluctance to do much of anything some days. We find ourselves feeling emptiness that we never really thought existed. We keep waiting for Alan Funt to jump out, or Ashton Kutcher to admit we’ve been punk’d, so we can have a good laugh and get back to the way it’s supposed to be. Only it won’t be. There’s no do-over, just like there’s no Easy button for this.

And so we plod on. We make our plans to get back up to see mom in a couple of weeks, because there’s work to be done and quite frankly we want to be there, we want to be a part of it, despite whatever madness may be happening back here at the office with stuff that, really, just isn’t as important anymore.

We will go on. It will get a little easier, each day. It will, eventually, stop being so front-of-mind, so searing, so present. And when it does, it will be fresh cause for mourning.

Henry P. Tarrier, 1943 – 2018

On Tuesday morning, Mary’s dad unexpectedly passed away at home, aged 74. This whole week has been a blur of getting Mary up to Vermont to her family, then the kids and I following. He had wanted a very simple funeral, but as a 31-year veteran of the Army National Guard, received full military honors at his burial. We’re still processing through feelings that are quite raw, and I’ll be sharing more about that as time progresses I’m sure, but today I wanted to share the comments I made at his graveside funeral as a way of honoring the only other man I ever knew as Dad.

I want to thank the members of the United States Army for their service today in honoring Dad and his 31 years in uniform. I’ll let them honor that today; my role today is different, to share a few words about Mike in all his other roles, husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend.

I knew Mike only 28 years, and I got in trouble before I even met him, when I didn’t come out to the house to meet him when I met Mary for our first date. I remember having to go through initiation with him as Mary and I dated, with his brothers Chuck and David grilling me on life, career, politics, everything, as Mike just sat back and watched, wondering if this one will be good enough to be worthy of being part of the family.

Because for Mike, everything began and ended with family. His wife, Sandra, and he were married for over 50 years; their devotion is a model for us all. They were absolutely inseparable, did everything together, which was a hard lesson for Mary when we married, that occasionally a husband may want to do something different than his wife. He loved his girls, and it absolutely broke his heart every time Mary and I left to drive back home to Virginia.

I just want to say a few words about the character of the man that we honor today: eight of them, in fact.

I won’t say Dad was stubborn, but I’ll say he was determined, and he had a very definite sense that there is a right way to do things. He was persistent, he never gave up trying to figure out a fix for something around the house. He worked with his hands, doing simple, honest work; he didn’t have to be a General, he was content with who he was. He was selfless in serving others, which we saw both in his career choice and in how he sacrificed to make sure his family had everything it needed. He had a tremendous heart for others, one that had a quiet depth to it. He might not speak often, but when he did, his words conveyed meaning. There was a genuineness to him that meant what you saw was what you got, there was nothing artificial about him at all. And he was a man of character and integrity, a wholeness that everyone came to understand.

We marked Fathers’ Day yesterday (it’s not right to say we celebrated it, given the circumstances). To become a father is fundamentally a foundational act: you are establishing something you intend to be permanent, to live on forever. Mike lived a whole life, devoted to establishing something permanent, and as he would look around today at everyone gathered here, I believe he would feel he was a success. Who a father is, his values, he hopes will live on after he’s gone. I believe Mike’s will, because of his grandchildren–and it’s with them that I want to close today.

I want the four of you to know, to never doubt, that you were loved by your Grampa, that he was incredibly proud of you. And, everything we’ve talked about here today about him, lives on in you.

  • Naomi, you are persistent. You didn’t give up on college, you went back to classes this year, and I know that made him proud. You are also incredibly genuine. Your Grampa lives in you.
  • Monica, you have such a heart for others, and a quiet depth about you. You have your Grampa’s heart. He lives in you.
  • David, you too are called to work with your hands in simple work, and you are becoming a man of incredible character and integrity. Your Grampa lives in you.
  • And Sarah, I won’t say that you’re stubborn, but I will say you’re determined, and that you also know there’s a right way to do things. And your selfless serving of others is reflected in how you serve the Lord. Your Grampa lives in you.

At our funerals, the stories that are told won’t be about how early we walked, or our grades, or that time we stayed late on that project, or made this incredible Powerpoint…none of the things the world says are important. Instead, the stories that will be told will be about the life we lead, our values, and the legacy we leave behind in our children and grandchildren.

And so, as we commend Mike’s remains to the earth and his soul to his Lord and Saviour, we reflect on the legacy of the man it was our privilege to know and to love, and we celebrate how he lives on.