My father, Dale Jones, died at 79 on November 11, 2016. This is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral in Sturgis, South Dakota, today.
How impossible it is to sum up a life lived just short of eighty years. I’m a historian, scholar, and theologian by trade, and to do the summing up while standing at a far remove of centuries is already difficult. But when the person you’re describing is so newly gone and when you’ve shared three-fourths of those eight decades with him, all perspective is lost. It’s all just a bag of emotions, and almost any one of you would have better insight than this son today.
But there are some things I can say. The first is that my mom and dad have loved me every day of my life. And later, when Dee entered the picture, the love from her direction came not as a substitute but as a gracious addition. Whatever fault lines there were in my dad’s inner existence, whatever led him to hunger and yearn for something greater, for something beyond himself, for something universal and whole and creative rather destructive, both the push and pull of it came from love. It was both the source and the ultimate end that wrapped him and carried him.
Second, for lots of people in Sturgis, my dad was just that goofy guy on the scooter with a long grabber in his hand and a basket full of empties he’d picked up on the side of the road. But that was just his mild-mannered alter ego. He was really a superhero in your midst. And his superpower was the ability to grab what was cast-off, starting with those empties but expanding to dumpster treasures and to actual people. Most of his adult life was written with a pen containing Serenity Ink. It saw nothing and no one as trash. It saw hope in each encounter. And when a bit of self-doubt kryptonite landed in his lap, he went to the curing places that were those relationships: to Dee, of course, to me and my siblings, to his grandchildren, to those whom he and Dee called their adopted kids, to friends like Clay and Mary Ellen, to people ranging from Australia to France, to whatever fellow drunk working their program was nearby.
Finally, the relationship my dad and I had was fraught. And there was plenty of baggage. And old friend had a similar relationship with his father, and earlier this week we talked about the arc of that father-son relationship. The fraughtness of our first twenty years, when we didn’t understand each other, and we kept missing the real and true connection that was hurt by his alcoholism and lots of earlier hurts he’d faced — that was on him. The next twenty years as he realized he was powerless over alcohol and every other thing that life consists of, and as he made a fearless and searching moral inventory and took action to correct things where possible — these years are on me. I was angry, embarrassed, scornful, and dismissive while he kept moving forward, trying his damnedest to be alive and to figure out how to be a both a sober and a loving dad.
But the last twenty years, give or take a few, have been years of joy and wonder. And that’s not on either of us. That responsibility has had to come from outside us. He’d say it was the universe exuding love. I’d probably point to a Judean preacher from the first century who was crucified. Either way and whatever the source, it came sneaking in to our relationship through you all, surrounding us with your own love and care.
First and foremost, the burden of seeing my dad and me renewed has been born by Dee for him and by Mary and Sam for me. But it can’t be limited to them. My brother and sister (and his as well), his grandchildren, my mom, this vast web of relationships we crawl around in – you’ve all meant something to the tiny world that was me and my dad. But seeing you drawn together to share our mourning is a sign that there is more to life than what happens between a first breath in a maternity home and a last gasp on the floor of a bedroom.
It’s that inter-connectedness that my dad loved and relied on. It’s what he reveled in. It’s the mercy that he bathed in. In spite of his death, it’s what remains when all are ashes and dust. I learned that from my dad. And I yearn for that to live on in my relationship with my own son, Sam, who is going to read the prayer Saint Francis wrote back in the middle ages. This version is the translation included in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Francis himself would have been seen by his contemporaries as the goofy guy in town, loving his animals, and searching for life from God. His faith moved him to extend himself. And the words of his prayer speak to the exact world my dad wanted to live in, and what he hoped would be bound within the covers of the book of his life.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace —
That where there is hatred, I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error, I may bring truth,
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith,
That where there are shadows, I may bring light,
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand, than to be understood,
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen