My Dad: A Eulogy

Kevin J Devine 4.7.49-2.23.15

Kevin J Devine
4.7.49-2.23.15

 

A year and a half ago, my dad came to Los Angeles for work, and for a short visit. His visits never felt long enough, and if I got him for two nights (as I did on this particular August trip), I considered myself lucky.

My pre-teen self would have likely cringed at the thought of spending more time with Dad. He was always embarrassing my sister and me by doing things like actually talking to our friends, asking us questions about our lives, or picking us up at middle school dances—while wearing his weekend uniform of running tights—minus the shorts that were typically worn on top. He would feign ignorance at our horror, and laugh. He let it roll off his back and become one of the stories we told later that made us all smile.

I don’t know when the shift happened, but somewhere along the way it became a sort of bragging right: having a dad other people, and I, wanted to be around. And because I had him for two evenings on this summer trip, I was willing to share him for a night. My friends invited us to meet them at an outdoor park in Marina del Rey for a symphonic concert and picnic. We went, with wine and homemade kale chips and chocolate. My dad sat down next to me on the plaid blanket, batted his long, dark eyelashes and charmed everyone within minutes.

I asked him to try the kale chips; he gave me that squinty side-eyed, head-cocked look that he always gave me when I suggested something he was skeptical about. It was a look I had expected to receive when I broke the news that I was moving across the country, when I explained that I was quitting my job to travel, or when I told him that I wanted to write a book. But what materialized then instead was a hug, the kind that wrapped all the way around and enveloped me, and words I didn’t know I needed to hear: “Honey, I will always be proud of you.” I knew how deeply he meant it, how much he really wanted me to listen, when he put his hands on my shoulders and began with honey.

That night he bravely tasted a kale chip, which he washed down immediately with wine. “Not for him” was the verdict, as he reached for the cheese and crackers, and the dark chocolate chips. I couldn’t blame him, really. I inherited his sweet tooth along with his stubbornness, and his love for The Yankees and The Giants.

We watched the sun sink lower in the sky above the marina. The strings and the woodwind instruments accompanied the sailboats as they passed before us, backlit by fading golden rays of light. My picture of the sunset that night was captioned, “can it be summer forever?” I wish I had written what was even truer: “can this moment last just a little longer?”

I realized soon after, that the sunset, the symphony and I, had all lost my dad’s attention. He was captivated, enamored by a huge, fluffy ball of fur seated just behind him. The dog whisperer, I thought that night. He spent the majority of the next hour swapping puppy stories with the owners, and cuddling this giant dog. When he said goodbye to them in the parking lot later, it was with reluctance and covered in dog hair. He bonded quickly about dogs, about watches, about anything really. He so easily connected with other people, he could have led a master class in it, were it something that could be taught. My friends would text me later: “Your dad is so sweet! We love him.”

I try to encompass all the things he was, or even all of the things he was to me in limited space. I think about all of the skills he taught me: how to buy a watch, how to lease a car, how to talk to clients, how to stay calm in a small plane, how to navigate a roundabout from the left side of the road in Ireland. I endeavor to permanently imprint on my heart all of the lessons he revealed to me: how to be kind, how to forgive, how to make people smile, how to be more patient, how to love without holding back. I attempt to remember every detail: the cowlicks in his thick hair, the way he refused to wear socks with his boat shoes, the feel of his strong hand around mine, the closed smile he used for photos, and the real, eye-crinkling smile he shared in person, the smell of his skin, the precise shade of those beautiful blue eyes.

But the loss has muddled my thoughts, and blurred my memories.

Instead, my mind keeps returning to that August night in Marina del Rey: a blazing sun setting behind white sails, Sauvignon Blanc and Monterey Jack for dinner, Gershwin and sheepdogs to follow us into our dreams. And my heart remembers this one perfect night with the first man I ever loved, the one who kissed bruises and wiped away tears, the one who was always there to greet me with a hug, and give a ride home from Newark Airport, the one who made sure I knew how much he loved me every day of my life.

This loss feels like it is just mine, but of course it is shared in part by everyone who knew him, and even those who didn’t. When I left the hospital that final time, in grief’s haze, the waxing moon hung lower in the sky than I have ever seen it. To my swollen eyes, it looked heavy, like it was sinking, weighted down with our sorrow.

Or like someone in the sky figured out how to fly the moon at half-mast, to honor my dad.

 

Our first photo together

Our first photo together

I love my daddy

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December 2014

Our last lunch at Bolu; December 2014

 

Our last photo together

Our last photo together; my birthday in January

The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

Lavender Roses

I never noticed them before;

I see them everywhere now.

Four times already in Sydney,

Halfway across the world, and they are here.

You are here.

 

How can that be?

How can you be both everywhere,

And nowhere?

 

One of your songs plays on the radio,

On a taxi ride to Drummoyne.

I barely hear it at first,

But then it becomes the only sound.

You are here, too.

 

What does it mean?

(Does it mean anything?)

Is it really you that I am hearing?

 

Now it is my voice instead,

Speaking your name,

Over and over.

 

Kelly loved lavender roses.

Kelly loved Josh Groban.

Kelly loved.

 

Your name pours from my lips,

Like an upended glass of water;

Unstoppable spillage.

 

Your flowers,

Your song,

Your name.

 

You are everywhere.

You are nowhere.

You are here.

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