My father died a week ago today. He had a profound impact on the life I live today and on the person I became. The relationship between a son and a father can often be quite complicated. Not so, for me. I was blessed to have a rather simple, yet powerful and loving, relationship with my dad. And because I believe that at Fast Company we have created a community of friends, not mere readers with little connection to our magazine, I want to share the eulogy I delivered at his funeral on Saturday.
My father was a hard man to dislike. I know it’s common at a funeral to only remember the good things, to omit the things that would embarrass someone. In my father’s case, the most remarkable thing that can be said is that there is no bad.
So let me start with the facts.
My father was born in Paterson, N.J., on July 30 in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was president. He was the third of five children — Regina, Cissy, Isabell, and Pat — born to a pair of textile workers, John and Mary, in Silk City. So it was natural that one day he would become a textile worker himself. And one of my earliest memories is of my dad coming home with colored feet — some nights orange, others blue, green, purple — a telltale sign of what dye was used in his finishing plant that day.
He went by many names: Jack, JJ, Red, for the slight reddish tint in his light brown hair.
Most of you know his eyesight was always poor. In fact, he wasn’t born that way, but he could never remember how he lost the sight in one eye and had very little sight in the one that worked. His sister Isabell, whom he always referred to as Dizzy Izzie, thinks he was hit in the back of the head by a swing at a park. His brother Pat seems to recall that someone smashed a brick into the back of his head.
No matter. I’m told that if you were walking down the street when my father drove a car, it would make good sense to run in the opposite direction. My dad used to joke that he would often ride the sidewalks and, in fact, quit driving when he almost ran over some innocent bystander.
He didn’t allow this handicap to hold him back.
He met the woman — Valerie — who would become his wife at his sister Isabell’s wedding on February 1, 1947. Valerie worked in a coat factory. He married her in 1950. Three years later, in 1953, he had his only child. After working in a dye house — Nu-Dye Finishing Co. on Harrison St. — for many years, he became a postal clerk, a job he had for 20 years until he retired at the age of 62 in 1987. He died 17 years later at exactly 8:17 a.m. on April 14.
It’s the simple bio of a simple and modest man.
But you don’t measure the life of a man by simple facts, simply told.
It’s been said that you measure it in the truths he learned, or in the times he cried, in the bridges he burned, or the way that he died.
In his 79 years, my father learned much, rarely if ever cried, never burned a bridge, and pretty much knew when he wanted to make his exit.
Here’s what he learned:
He learned that a cold beer on a hot day is one of life’s greatest pleasures. My father was a beer drinker, and though he never met a beer he didn’t like, he preferred Schaefer in the can. He loved a cold beer on a hot day as much he loved a smallmouth bass on the end of his fishing line. Truth is, he loved a cold beer, a warm beer, on almost any day or night.
He learned that you should fill your life with music. My father was an accordion player. He taught himself to play the piano and could play everything from Chopin to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. He played boogie-woogie, Polish polkas, Italian dance numbers, Broadway classics, and Beatles tunes. Some of the happiest hours of his life were spent squeezing the squeezebox, stomping a foot on the floor, his fingers flying across the keyboard on everything from Roll Out the Barrel to the Tarantella. It was a rare party when my father failed to bring out the accordion to play.
He learned to be generous with himself and with his friends. My father didn’t have much, but he shared what he had with just about anyone who needed what little he had. When we closed up his house on 89 Sherman Ave. and paid his final bills two years ago, we found out that he sometimes paid the oil bills of friends and neighbors when they didn’t have the cash to pay themselves. He never spoke about these generosities, and he never expected anything in return. He was a man who knew what an honest day’s work was and delivered it without complaint or failure — ever.
He learned to live life with optimism. Above all, my father was an optimist. He loved to laugh. He loved to please. He was rarely, if ever, critical of people. He didn’t have an unkind bone in his body. He filled his life with hope, even when there was little reason to hope. And for me, the optimism came in the form of encouragement — I was encouraged to play an instrument. I was encouraged to go to college. My father paid my $250 a semester tuition bill only if I regularly put money away in my savings account. When my hair was shoulder length, I never heard the slightest criticism. When my stereo screamed the Stones and the Allman Brothers, my father never told me to turn it down. When I protested against the Vietnam War, my father said he would take me to Canada if I were drafted. When I quit my part-time job delivering food to patients at St. Joe’s Hospital, my mother wondered if I was crazy. My father knew that the job I was taking in its place — to write stories for 25 cents an inch for a local shopper — was the right move.
He learned to live life, period. Do things. The more, the better. My father did many things, but he especially loved one thing very much. My father was a fisherman. He started fishing with his father and as a young boy he often fished off the Arch St. bridge in Paterson, tossing his line into a polluted Passaic River. He loved the quiet and the solitude of fishing and he fished the backwoods of Canada, Greenwood Lake, the Pompton River, and every body of water he could reach.
He learned that if you’re on this earth, you better have fun. There were few things in his life that my father didn’t love. One of them was mischief. As a young teenager, he’d gather snakes on the nearby riverbank and bring them back to his house in a bucket — using them to scare the bejesus out of his sister and her friends. He’d chase them down North First St. until they screamed hysterically, only to end up laughing so hard he couldn’t run anymore. Then he’d sit on the stoop of his house with a satisfied smile, the bucket of snakes beside him, waiting for the girls to return, so he could dip his hand in that bucket and pull out an especially large one to frighten the girls yet again.
And for years, even into his late 20s, he was known to go over to his youngest sister’s house, gently knock on a side window, and then hide behind the bushes — just to give her a scare. He called her: Dizzy Izzie. (“Dizzy Izzie, are you there?” echoing what his father would say into the telephone in place of a hello.)
My father never really lost his love of mischief. About 29 years ago, he went to my bachelor party. Now you’d think my father — the only real grownup in the place — would have brought some sanity, if not reason, to what became a drinking event, especially after his only son had downed the first dozen shots of tequila with beer chasers. But no, my father was there, goading me on to my 18th shot. When my friends delivered me home that night, my mother came to the front door, only to see me being carried lifeless by my arms and legs. She screamed. “Oh my God, Johnny’s dead. You killed him.” And my father simply turned and said, “He’s not dead. He’s drunk. Get the hell in the house.”
I never saw my father cry. But here’s how he knew he had enough of life. He had suffered two hearts attacks and a stroke. He lost his limited eyesight and had become blind. He had skin cancer. He had congestive heart failure, his heart pumping at less than 50% of capacity through valves that leaked a good amount of blood. His kidney was failing, too.
Two years ago, my father said, “I’m ready for the deep sleep.”
He wasn’t. He hung on. He convinced himself that he had to live to care for my mother, who didn’t live with him but in an adjacent assisted care center. He found friends who gathered around him at a nursing home. He had two more dinners around a long table in a basement in Paterson over two more Thanksgiving Days. He spent two more Christmas holidays with his family. He never lost his good humor.
Two weeks ago, my father was lying in a hospice bed, when he said, “Please let me die.”
And his last words to me were my last words to him: “I love you.” It was a beautiful and a complete ending, for me and for him.
Here is how I measure my father’s life.
I measure his life in the warehouse of photographs, movies, and soundtracks he leaves. I measure it in the size of his hands.
What I remember most about my father is his handsbecause from my earliest age, he held my hand in his and we discovered the world together.
With his hand in mine, we walked through New York’s Times Square. We went to Yankee Stadium. We went to Radio City Music Hall. We rode the subway out to Coney Island. We went to a lone cabin in the woods in Greenwood Lake. We went to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to see Louie Armstrong. We went to Passaic’s Central Theater to see the opening of A Hard Day’s Night. We watched the All-Star game together every July at the Carroll Hotel.
We went to Tad’s Steakhouse, where you could get a t-bone, a baked potato, a hunk of garlic bread and a tossed salad for $2.79. We went to my grandmother’s house on Saturday afternoons for endless games of gin rummy, Parcheesi, and Chinese checkers. We went for long hikes on Sunday afternoon, through the woods in Haledon. We hitchhiked together. We played music together, he on a keyboard, me on a drum kit. We strolled the railroad tracks together, laying pennies on the rails and waiting for the train to pass so we could use the flattened coins for guitar picks. We went to the newsstand together to buy magazineshis was always “True Detective,” mine almost always something about music or monsters.
We fished together, in rowboats, off river banks and bridges, in rivers and in lakes, with worms and fish eggs, and lures and flies. We hiked through Garrett Mountain and climbed the stone steps in Lambert Tower. We fed the ducks in Goffle Brook Park. We walked across the arched wooden bridge from West Side Park to Casa Rosa for a dish of mussels and birch beer. We walked along the towpath of the canals near the Great Falls. And we gobbled down hot dogs all the way at Falls View.
And I remember these things as if we had done them all last weekend — because we did them again and again and again and again, his outstretched hand leading me here and there and everywhere. I remember my times with my father as vividly as a great piece of music where you know every word, every note, every solo taken by every member of the band. You know it until it becomes part of you, until it becomes you.
He did that for me, and because he did, we will always travel together.
As my father neared death, I put my hand in his as often as I could. I wanted him to know that I was with him on his final journey on earth.
Dad, today your body is going to a place I’m not ready for. You’ll have to go there alone. But I will join you some day, and I will look forward to that time when we can take those very long walks together forever and ever.
Sleep warm, dad. Sleep tight. Sleep well.
I love you. Always have. Always will.