I sent you a letter a few weeks ago about my dad’s funeral and I was really hoping you’d write me back because I’m a wreck. Did you receive it?
I did get your letter. And I was sorry to hear about your father’s death. I actually wished I could’ve attended the funeral, but we’ve never met in person before so that would have been pretty weird. Besides, this is a pandemic going on. So I’ll just say this:
Your dad loved you.
No, I never knew your father, but after your letter, I feel like we’re friends. And I think it’s important to keep hearing that he loved you because death should only be about love. So should life.
Society gets death all wrong. We make it into something it’s not. Sometimes we make life’s final ceremony into sadness, organ music, and black dresses. But death is more than that.
Nobody tells you that death can be perhaps the most beautiful life event there is. Certainly, it’s tragic. Yes, it’s a sad thing. I’m sure as heck not saying we should all break out the party hats.
What I mean to say is that death is not hideous, or shameful, or ugly, or dark. It is remembering something beautiful.
It is the Grand Canyon, slowly being chipped away by the Colorado River. It is a supernova, exploding in the far-off like a million balls of lightning.
A man’s life can seem so ordinary here on earth. But after he dies his entire existence becomes amplified beneath a huge magnifying glass, and everyone suddenly realizes that this man was not ordinary.
That can’t be all bad.
My father’s death was the most profound moment in my early life. And when the crashing breakers of grief died down, I realized something: I’d never really looked at my father’s life in its entirety.
I’d only heard his stories. I’d experienced only bits and pieces of him. I’d never grasped the big picture of the man.
So I immediately raided a large cardboard box of antique photographs in the closet. I scattered them on the floor like confetti. I hadn’t looked at these pictures in a thousand years. Each photo messed up my face pretty bad.
I started with his early days. A black-and-white photograph of a boy standing beside a barn. He’s chubby. There is a chicken wandering nearby. You can tell it’s him. It’s all in the eyes.
The boy, I mean, not the chicken.
The next several shots were of a teenager, doing teenage things. He wore Chuck Taylors, had a buzz cut, and built model airplanes. Learned to drive a Ford. Learned to smoke cigarettes. Then he fell in love.
The pictures of him in love are his best. There is his wedding, at a gazebo, in a park, on a spring day. He had lambchop sideburns like Joe Namath. She had flowers in her hair.
They bought a little house. Had a devilishly handsome son. They ate a lot of meatloaf.
And oh, the Little League pictures. He was growing thicker, like he’d been putting in some time around the onion dip. He was surrounded by little boys in oversized baseball uniforms with extra-large ball caps and saggy pants.
Of course there are also the stereotypical family photos taken with the Ford station wagon.
Do you remember when families would take pictures in front of their cars? It used to be all the rage to pose everyone before the family pile for Kodak moments.
Today you’d look ridiculous snapping the family’s picture in front of your Nissan Sentra.
But there he stands, beside his car, proudly holding a toddler boy in his arms. Young. Handsome. The same guy he always was.
There were the photos from his surprise birthday party. Just before he died. He saw a living room full of people who shouted “Surprise!” He pretended to be shocked.
In those birthday photos you can see me in the background, eating my third slice of cake. I’m the chubby kid.
But the final photograph was the one that stung the most. I must have stared at it for an hour.
He was thirty-eight. He stood in a field. Shirtless. Wearing trousers. He was smiling. His hair was wet. His young redheaded son was beside him, also drenched. Nobody remembers why they were wet. They had their arms around each other. They were so happy it makes my stomach hurt.
Dylan, the glory of a man’s life can be seen in his face. If you look hard enough you can see everything he’s been through and everything he ever thought. And none of his mistakes.
Concentrate on the lines around his eyes. You will sense his strengths, his weaknesses, and how the two are sometimes the same.
Everything a man ever was can be remembered if you try hard enough. His bravery and his fear; his sadness and his laughter; his pain and elation; his under-confidence and his foolhardy pride; his moments of valor and his embarrassments.
When someone dies, you see no ugly, and all beauty. You see his life. Your life. Everything. For a brief moment, the whole mystery of the world lights up like Independence Day. I know it seems like I’m reaching for melodrama here, but I’m being honest.
At a funeral, for a quick moment you understand life better than you did before. And you realize that within this world of suffering and unpredictability, of ordinary people, common men, and uncommon beauty, there is only one thing that matters. Only one thing has ever mattered:
Your dad loved you.
And so do the rest of us.