Thursday, March 7, 2013

Eulogy for Norman Wells

Almost 29 years ago now, after I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, and I was heading back to New York City, Dad drove me to the Route 128 station, waited with me till my train pulled in, and then when we hugged goodbye, he said, “You did her proud.  I hope you can do the same for me when the time comes.”

Well, the time has come, Dad, and all I can say is: you did us proud.  

There are all kinds of luck in life.  Ours was in having Norman Joseph Wells as a father.

If you were never lucky enough to meet him, but you met one of the five of us, then you met Dad.  He was a handsome devil with a room-filling laugh, a scholar who taught himself a language so he could translate a book, a father and a grandfather who wrote out his cards and letters with a calligraphy pen, a guy who could correct a test and watch a Bruins game at the same time, and a dimly-seen figure sitting on the edge of my childhood bed reading Treasure Island to me before I went to sleep. 

It’s always dangerous to simplify, but I think it’s safe to say that, at heart, my father was a teacher.  Which is not what I ever said when people would ask me what he did.

When people would ask me what my father did, I would either tell them the truth, and say, “He’s a professor of medieval theology at Boston College;” or I would tell them the truth, and say, “Dig up twenty people who died before Thomas Aquinas, and he could talk to all of them.”  And, with the possible exception of Aquinas, win an argument with every single one.  

 He taught for over 40 years at BC, and because every professor in the department was required to teach the equivalent of Philosophy 101, football players and classics majors and pre-law and pre-med students were all lucky enough to get a blue book back with impeccable Palmer Method notes in bold red ink detailing errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and—oh yes—philosophy as well.   This is why everyone in our family has had the experience of a total stranger coming up to us and saying, “I knew your father; he taught me Descartes.”  And, because Dad also taught at St John’s Seminary, sometimes that total stranger would have a cassock and a collar.  We’d be at a wedding, a christening, a confirmation, or a funeral, and there’d be the priest, or the Bishop, suddenly acting like an 18-year-old and saying, “Dr. Wells—how are you?”  

That’s what happens when you’re a teacher.  No matter how old your students get, they always look up to you as someone to respect, to emulate.  Especially when you’re a good teacher.

Now, if I said, “Good teachers make good fathers,” Dad would say I was writing a Robert Frost poem.  But it would still apply.

And if I said, “A man’s life is lived forwards but only understood backwards,” Dad would tell me that I’m misquoting Kierkegaard. But it would still apply.  In the end, the tranquility of his acceptance, not just of his own personal condition, but of the condition to which we all are subject, was nothing short of angelic.  

But if I said, “Even when you’re lucky enough to get to know somebody inside and out, there are still so many places inside that can surprise you,” I don’t think he’d give me an argument.  

For instance: I said five of us earlier.  Actually there were six.  Mom had a preemie—a premature baby—between Kevin and David, a baby who lived long enough to be baptized with the name of Joseph, and then died.  I remember her telling me once, while the two of us were drinking tea and smoking Larks in the kitchen, that she had asked Dad one night, out of the blue, “Do you ever think about the baby we lost?”  “Every day,” Dad said.  And that’s all he ever said.  And all he ever had to say.  

In the movie Amour, which just won the Oscar for best foreign film, you watch a husband caring for his wife as she slowly deteriorates before his eyes.  And notable in its absence, the title of the movie, the word love, is not spoken once in the entire film.  

It doesn’t have to be.  You see it in action.  I was lucky enough to see it in action when Dad was taking care of Mom, almost 30 years ago.   And anybody who watched my sister and my brothers take care of Dad in the last few years saw it in action as well.  

That stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere.  It gets passed on.  Jenna, Eric, Dennis, Alyssa: it’s in you now.  Pass it on, you guys.

Life is funny.  If you’re lucky, you get to live long enough to become an orphan.  And if you have siblings and you’re really lucky, then you get to live long enough to become an only child.  It’s a bitter gift, but Dad was lucky enough to be both.  He embodied, in the best way the words of Descartes when he wrote: “To know who people really are, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say.” 

That’s how Descartes would describe Dad.  Here’s how I’d do it.  Because I am who I am, and who I am is my father's son, it’s in the form of a sonnet--a sonnet I wrote on the train ride here from New York.  It’s titled “Philosophy.” 


    It’s not what you believe; it’s how your life 
    Embodies your beliefs—not quotes or facts 
    You weaponize while fighting with the wife,
    But offhand comments and impromptu acts.
    It’s what you do because it just makes sense;
    What gets said when your inner-you voice talks.
    It’s who you are when there’s no audience 
    But God, that stern gent in the upper box.
    Show me a man who lives his life like that
    And I’ll show you my father—someone who
    Has so much going on under his hat
    And in his heart, that what else can he do  
        But laugh, and roar, and take great care, and give; 
        And, if you’re lucky, teach you how to live.

No comments: