My father passed away suddenly on September 18th. The last thing I could give him was my words. I gave two different versions of this talk, one as a memorial service at the funeral home, and one at the funeral service at his church. (At the church I left out the Buddhist and Transcendentalist parts, and told more of the stories.)
Thank you everyone for coming. It means a lot to my Mom, my brother, and me to see so many people here.
I’d like to say a few words about Dad.
My father grew up Catholic. Not just Catholic but Polish Catholic. He was the grandson of immigrants and very proud of that Polish background.
Over his adult life he and the Church sort of grew apart. I know he was happy when Mom found the community at Epiphany Lutheran. And I know he was moved by how supportive everyone there was when Mom was sick last year, especially Pastor Arwyn and Deacon Roger.
Roger, I really want to thank you for the support you gave Dad during Mom’s illness. You were there for him when Mom was in extremis, and having seen that I know how you’re going to be there for her now. It gives me a lot of comfort.
Dad was just starting to connect to Epiphany. But he really did consider it his church.
But Dad was never narrow about religion. He had a strong spiritual side but never let it get limited by one faith. He always had a universalist take. So I don’t think he’d mind if I go Buddhist for a minute here.
There is a story about the Zen master Gudō Tōshoku. He was the teacher of the retired Emperor of Japan, and one day the Emperor asked him, “What happens to an enlightened person when they die?”
Gudō said, “I don’t know.”
The Emperor said, “You don’t know? But aren’t you an enlightened teacher?”
And Gudō said, “Yes. But I’m not a dead one.”
We have hopes about an afterlife. I guess some of us have fears — Dad didn’t, thank goodness. His God was love, and he knew that whatever comes after could never be something to fear.
What do we really know for sure about what comes after? Well…sometime, long down the road, many years from now I hope, maybe I can tell you.
But whatever the truth about that, the Buddha noticed something important about our life here.
In this life each of us is a combination of things that come together for a while and then separate. The atoms of our bodies come together, and they do their dance, and then they go apart. But the atoms are still there. Just spread out more.
And that’s also true of our ideas and experiences, all the thinks that make up our mind and our spirit.
In this life, Dad was the things he learned and felt and thought and said, the things he did and the things that happened to him. For all those years there was a center to those things, something easy to see. Now that’s gone. That center isn’t there.
But all those experiences and ideas and thoughts and feelings are still around.
All those things that came together to make up Mr. Mark…they’re not gone. Dad always liked to point out that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only changed. All those things that made up him, are still with us now.
Dad is just spread out more. He’s mixed into all of us.
When Mom was sick last year, while she was unconscious my cousin Jenny suggested that I read to her. One of the things I read from was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. And there was a passage that just floored me, like finding it was a message from the Universe. I thought it was a message about Mom but I guess it was about Dad. The Universe is a weird place sometimes.
But this is what good old Uncle Walt had to say:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward . . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe . . . . and
am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and
fathomless as myself;
They do not know how immortal, but I know.
I said that Dad was very proud of his Polish heritage. But more than that he was very proud of his parents. His father was a fire fighter, a lieutenant in the Baltimore City Fire Department. His mother was a nurse. And I think that to understand him you have to know that the way that his parents served the community was very important to him.
In high school, Dad was not the most devoted student. He was an intelligent guy but he didn’t really know what to do with himself. He was more interested in hanging out with his friends Tom Passaro and Jim Staniewicz — the men my brother and I were named after — than in his studies. But one thing he was interested in was photography.
Dad liked the idea of serving his country, serving something bigger than himself. And they told him, “Oh, hey young man, you’re interested in photography? Well we do all sorts of surveillance photography in the Air Force! We can give you training about different sorts of cameras and film and development techniques and set you up for a civilian career afterwards. Just sign here!”
Well, as it turned out, they didn’t need him to be a photographer. They needed someone to be an Air Policeman in some country he’d never dreamed of being sent to, Vietnam.
But before they sent him there, while he was stationed at Dover Air Force and hitchhiking home whenever he got a weekend pass, he met a young lady at a New Years Eve party.
Now Mom was dating someone else at the time. But a while later, she was looking forward to graduation and thinking about who might escort her to the dance. Mom’s grandmother told her, “You should write to that nice boy Mark.”
Dad would be the first to tell you that that was the best thing to ever happen to him.
He spent his year patrolling the air base over there. There’s one story about his time there that just amazed me. He got though his year without too much excitement, and was on his way home. He had gone from the airbase where he was stationed to the one where, I think, he would get his plane back to the world. He had a drink or two in the Enlisted Men’s club and just as he came out, the base came under mortar attack.
He and another guy ran for a nearby bunker. It was a one-man bunker.
They took turns in it for the duration of the attack. He would jump in for a few minutes, then of his own free will would get out to let his fellow airman take shelter.
So he made it though that, came back and got engaged. And he got some advice from his Uncle Eddie, about how getting involved in a newfangled field called computer programming could be a good opportunity for a young man. With his GI benefits he went back to school. He did better now with the self-discipline he’d learned in the service.
He didn’t get a degree — they didn’t have computer science degrees back then! — but it was a two year vocational program. That set him up to work in the field for about thirty years.
He was active in the Holland Hills Improvement Association, and played Santa in the neighborhood’s holiday canned food drive for several years. He helped with the youth group at the Church of the Annunciation.
And his sons got him involved in the local rec council baseball program.
There have to be a hundred boys — and at least one girl — who knew Mr. Mark as their baseball coach. That was his personalized license plate, “Mr. Mark”, with a frame, a holder, for it that said “25 years of teaching youth baseball”. Over the years he was a coach, manager, program chairman, and umpire. In his last days we was still trying to contribute to that by writing a book.
He was very proud of all the lives that he was able to touch through baseball, how he got to help teach young people life lessons though sports.
How many of you knew my Dad from when you were a kid? Some of you called him your “other dad”. And man, that makes me feel proud and lucky.
A couple years ago I was talking with a friend about why baseball had become popular in Japan, and I realized that it’s a game that comes down to two things that are core values over there: teamwork and fundamentals.
And those were two of Dad’s core values.
I saw on Facebook (and here today) so many people who knew him from his first career in computers — “data processing”, as they called it back then — or his second career in real estate. They talked about how great it was to work with him. He knew how to treat his teammates.
And he never lost track of the fundamentals. Yeah, his desk was always a mess — he had one of of those little “Please don’t straighten the mess on my desk, you’ll goof up my system” signs (and I think I may take that for my desk…) — but he had a handle on things.
That was a challenge these last few years as his health started to fail. But he kept it together.
Work out the budget. Pay the bills on time. Bring Mom flowers for no reason. Walk the dog.
And help people.
That was one of his big fundamentals, going back to what he learned from his mom and dad.
I remember one time — and I’m pretty sure this was when we had the station wagon, so I don’t think I could have been more than ten — he came home one evening with two teenage girls. Someone had attacked them and stolen their bikes, threw the bikes in their pickup truck and sped off. And the girls were trying to wave down help from the side of the road. Now this was way before cell phones, so he brought them to our house so they could call their parents and the police. (And they did catch the guys.)
It would have been really easy to keep on driving by. Dad never would have.
And I remember another time, there were two men in the neighborhood having a really bad argument and about to get into a fight across the street. One of them had a knife. Dad walked over and talked them down.
It would have been very easy to just close the door and pull down the shades, and say “I don’t want to get involved.” Dad didn’t.
But there was one more fundamental that Dad took care of: build in some time for play.
Last weekend Dad and Mom went up to the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in upstate New York to see Barry Mannilow (that was mostly for Mom, though Dad had come to appreciate him too) and play some blackjack (that would be for Dad — and he came out a winner — though Mom put a few bucks in the slot machines). And they had a really wonderful time.
And that’s how he spent his last days: having fun with the woman he loved. I think that’s pretty good.
A lot of you here know that just a few days short of a year ago, Mom was in the hospital hanging between life and death. And I sat with Dad while Mom was in the OR. We talked some, and it was really a raw moment.
And as I was thinking about telling you this, I was going say something about how I really saw his heart during that. But I realized that we all really saw his heart all the time. He was one hundred percent a genuine and sincere guy. You never had to ask yourself “What does Mark really think about this? What is he hiding?”
There’s a line from Confucius: “Sincerity is the Way of Heaven”. I hope that that sincerity will stay with me and with all of us.
There’s one more thing I want to tell you about Dad. You may have noticed this stylish necktie I’m wearing. It’s one of his. Yes, Dad, I’m wearing a tie, it’s truly a miracle. It’s a print of birds. And I’m wearing it in honor of Dad’s feathered friends.
I don’t just mean the Orioles and the Ravens, as big a sports fan as he was. There’s one thing that Dad didn’t get from his parents, that he got from Mom over the years. And that was a relationship with companion animals.
Later there was Bonnie the parakeet (if you have Clyde, you have to have Bonnie). There were cockatiels and lovebirds: Jake, Elwood, Lucy, Bob. I think I’m missing a couple there. Dad would talk to them, sing to them, let them hang out on his shoulder.
As Dad’s first close animal friend, Clyde also paved the way for dogs.
When I was about a year old, Mom talked Dad into getting a beagle mix puppy, Buffy. So my brother and I grew up with dogs.
And when I was about thirteen and one morning old Buffy couldn’t walk anymore, it was Dad who picked him up lovingly and took him for that last ride to the vet. For my brother and me, that was our first death in the family. And seeing Dad handle it with love and compassion and gentleness was really important.
And there was Kato, and Fritz, and Danny, all rescue dogs, all mutts, all loved.
And because of that I went on to have dogs myself. And it’s a strange thing that happened a few months ago.
We had spoken on the phone just a few days before his trip, but one of the last three or four times I saw Dad face to face was in June. He was in the VA hospital and I visited him there. We talked about this and that for an hour or so. And as our conversation wound down he said, “Well, you’ve got a pooch at home waiting for you.” I think Dad was missing Danny and so was thinking of dogs. I had a pit bull mix, Ringo, who was not quite eight years old, perfectly healthy. Dad had met him a couple of times.
Well I got home, Ringo greeted me. I called Mom to update her about Dad, and went out back to get ready to mow the lawn. Ringo came out with me, was rolling around on the grass in the sunshine.
And I looked over two minutes later. And without any warning or sign, Ringo had just suddenly passed away. He was gone that quick.
So, I don’t know. Did Dad have some sense that I should go home to be with Ringo at the end? And…did he have some sense that his time was coming, and knew to spend his last weekend with Mom?
I’m always a skeptic about stuff like that – but Dad was always a believer. So he left me with a little bit of mystery.
You got me, Mr. Mark.
Love you, Dad.