Sunday, August 9, 2015

On Life, Death, and Beer

Last weekend, my parents and I attended the funeral of a family friend's father. Ellis was 98 when he passed, and it was clear how loved he was by everyone in attendance. Pictures of Ellis and his family adorned the room the funeral home had provided. His military history and medals were displayed proudly. Ellis' only grandson gave a beautiful eulogy speaking of Ellis' never-ending adoration and support for his entire family.

Full military honors were given for Ellis. Two soldiers performed an awe-inspiring ceremony of unfolding and refolding of the American flag to be presented to Ellis' wife. As the soldiers unfolded each triangle of the flag, the longest edges were given a sharp swipe of a gloved hand. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the methodical process. In the other room, shots rang out and a lone trumpet crooned out Taps to send Ellis home. As the folded flag was given to Ellis' wife, she softly started to weep. Her husband of 68 years was gone.

After the service, my dad and I grabbed a beer at St. Brendan's and sat in the sun, shooting the breeze.   We usually get together about once a week for a drink or three, Mom sometimes coming along when her students aren't expecting her the next morning. As Dad and I sat there, we reminisced about the successful restaurant his family ran for decades. We had moments of comfortable silence. We laughed. There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of this. So why did this whole day matter? Most funerals are filled with heavy hearts, memories frozen in time, and many have war stories. Spending time with my parents is something I do on a regular basis. What set this day apart? Well, honestly, nothing. Except it was a chance to be reminded of how life is meant to be lived.

Yesterday I was photographing a wedding, and during the ceremony, the officiant was speaking to the couple about how we aren't meant to live our lives alone. We were made to complete someone else, and help them get through life, to fill the space in their soul that we were meant to fit into. We can apply this not just to our significant others, but to our friends, family, even strangers. By giving ourselves and our actions to others, we make our lives richer.

While hearing this sermon, I recalled a memory of my dad giving apples to a homeless person we came across in Chicago and how almost every year for his birthday or Christmas, Dad tells us to not buy him gifts and donate money to charity instead. I remember my mom assisting an elderly gentleman who had fallen in the lobby of the motel we used to own. She stayed with him until the ambulance came, not because it was her duty as the motel owner's wife, but because she didn't want him to be alone, and it would have never crossed her mind to not help him.

I'm not sure at what exact moment my parents shifted from being parental figures and role models into being my friends, too, but adding that extra dimension to our relationship has made them all the more important to me. The other night, my dad sent me a number of emails between four and five in the morning. He's a bit more of a night owl, and often spends his evenings reading his latest library rental or catching up on CSPAN or the New York Times. If he comes across something online that he thinks I should know, he shoots me a quick email. My father never learned how to type correctly on a keyboard, so he punches each letter with his index fingers. When he takes the time to type out a message to me, I know how much effort he put into it. My parents and I are very open with each other, but our conversations are usually lighthearted. One of my father's late-night emails was a bit more serious. He mentioned bands he likes like Steely Dan and Heart, and he wanted me to remember them for when he "is no longer able to make his musical preferences known".

It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. My father was telling me his musical preferences for his funeral. I was numbed, tears filling my eyes. My dad can't be sending me these kinds of messages, he has to live forever! He can't be thinking about his death, I still haven't learned everything I need to from him yet, or said all of the things I need to say to him, or drank all the beers I need to drink with him! As hard as it was to hear these requests, I'm humbled that my dad thinks enough of me to share these difficult thoughts with me. However, Dad, I'm expecting to not need these musical requests for many years, just so we're clear.

My dad did bring up a good point, though. None of us know when our time here will come to an end. Life has a funny way of shaping us throughout our time here. We come across adversities we never expected, from losing loved ones too early in life, or feeling the sting of betrayal from friends and family, to then being greeted by the joyful occasions that present themselves every day. I have lived a full and blessed life so far, and I hope to continue to do so for many years to come. While we're on the subject, I would like to make my "final requests" known as well. I would like to be cremated, so my ashes can be spread at all the places I love dearly, as well as the places I've longed to go. Plant a tree or stone in my honor for those who may like to visit, and please stay a while when you do. Have the craft beer flowing at my final celebration, and whomever plans the meal better make sure there's chocolate, or I will haunt you for the rest of your days.

I'm not sure why it was important for me to share all of this with you, but these stories touched me in such a way that I had to get them out there. I'd like to propose a toast as I finish off my "hot-toddy" (beer) before I hit the hay: to all of you, and to life, death, and beer. May your life be long and rich with love, may your death be swift and fleeting, and may all of the moments in between be spent with a beer in hand, perfectly hoppy and malted. Cheers, friends.

Until next time...

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