I buried my father last week. It was not the sad and gut-wrenching experience I had sometimes dreaded. Dad was over 90 years old, and had lived almost thirty years past his own wildest expectation of a lifetime, so saying goodbye was much more a celebration of his life. There were no long painful stays in hospitals, or invasive and degrading attempts to keep him artificially alive; he simply decided not to wake up one morning. We sent him away in a manner I think he would have enjoyed; a big Irish wake, lots of music, and friends telling favorite stories.
He was one of the last members of “the greatest generation” – a man that ate, drank, and did almost anything he wanted to do with great delight and optimism. I used to jokingly remark to him about how lucky he was. While I and my middle-aged friends fret about our diets, make pilgrimages to the gym, and take every other measure to assure a long and attractive life; he smoked for over fifty years, and enjoyed prodigious amounts of scotch every evening. His heart rate had not achieved aerobic status since Army basic training in 1944, and he enjoyed a diet that primarily consisted of fat, red meat, and chemical preservatives I cannot pronounce.
At 90 he looked pretty much the same as he did at 60. He danced for as long as he could; enjoyed a marriage that lasted almost 69 years; put five children through college (and they all outlived him); and at his wake friends that had literally known him for over 80 years spoke tearfully of their love for the man.
His formulative early life experiences included an alcoholic father, the Depression, and a world war, so when he emerged into adulthood in the 40’s he particularly relished the new freshness and prosperity America offered. Unlike more current generations that often focus on negativity, a sense of entitlement, and the perceived injustices they face – Dad was an optimist and just felt constant gratitude for the life he felt blessed to receive. Since he had experienced poverty, abuse, and seen many of his friends perish in a real war against tyranny, everything past the age of 30 was an unexpected bonus in his eyes. And in our self-centered and addictive society where we often justify bad behavior based on the bad behavior of our parents – he was a man who broke the mold his father had tried to place him in. I never heard him raise his voice to my mother, and he could not have been a more kind and diligent father to me.
A fiscal conservative, he was actually a liberal when it came to how people should be treated. While he didn’t understand many people’s lifestyles, he was always a “live and let live” kinda’ guy. I appreciate that he was a man of few excuses who took responsibility for his own life. Despite the fact that he never made more that $40,000 a year, he died debt free with a surprisingly large estate, a classic example of “the millionaire next door”.
Living a somewhat cloistered life in the “other world” of Billings, Montana – his life was free of the problems and paranoia that the press, and perhaps life, now place on most of us. He fostered and respected friendships in a way that unfortunately is now out of vogue, and while he was tight with a dollar when it came to donating money, he freely gave of his time and had many charitable legacies to look back upon. He had a smile and manner that would light up a room, and he took great delight in leaving a little love wherever he went.
So it was no surprise, even at his advanced age when he had outlived most of his good friends, when hundreds of people came to say goodbye and celebrate all he had stood for. They smiled, some danced, told funny and charming stories about the man. He was a guy that loved parties – especially parties for him – and I suspect he could have not been more pleased.