Eulogy: Part 2 of 6 (Making Cuts)
I was sitting at his desk at midnight, head in my hands, with all of my ideas, and outlines and research stretched in front of me . . . written on 3 x 5 cards and napkins and on the backs of receipts . . . when my dad shuffled into the kitchen to reload the dishwasher to his liking. He glanced over at me and I looked up:
“Oh. Dad? I thought you’d gone already.”
“No, I have a few things to straighten up here.”
I thought he was talking about me, but he pointed to the dishes. He arranged the coffee cups so that all the handles faced the same direction, at the exact same angle. Then he moved to the bowls. He glanced over again.
“When’s it due?”
"Can you get some grace? Ask for an extension?"
"No. Not . . . not for this. It has to be tomorrow morning. Everyone's going to be there. I’ve used up all my grace. We’re out of time."
He sighed, finished with the dishes, put on the coffee, walked over, and told me the elephant statue analogy:
"Em, there was this reporter who became fascinated by the creative process. So, he asked a sculptor: ‘How do you take an unformed block of marble and turn it into a statue of an elephant? Where do you even begin?’ The sculptor replied: ‘I just start cutting away everything that doesn't look like an elephant.’"
I’d heard this story before, and I knew where it was going.
"The first thing you have to do is make your task manageable. Em, there's some good stuff . . . some great stuff in your research and brainstorming that isn't going to work. It doesn't look like your paper, and you're going to have to make your cuts."
My dad has always been really, really good at making cuts. To him, the process and the product are essentially intertwined. He’s good at seeing the finished product from the start – whether it’s a perfectly trimmed plant, a perfectly organized house, or a perfectly executed trip to Disney World – and cutting out what’s unnecessary.
I remember, watching him build things, I'd marvel at how quickly he could make his cuts. I'd usually ask: "Dad? Are you sure you got that measurement . . . "
"Yep." Zip. Zip. Perfect every time.
But I’ve never been quite as good at making cuts. My hands aren’t as sure. And I'm having a harder time than usual today, because everything looks like my dad right now.
Apparently, I'm not the only person having this problem. Of all the lovely emails and cards I've gotten, telling me things I knew and didn't know about my dad, this explanation of his personality resonated most deeply. I really couldn't say it any better:
One thing that came to me thinking about what I know of your dad, considering the vast sweep of his life the thing that most intrigued me or most compelled me to want to know him and be his friend is the way he made contradictory goals compatible. The way he consistently integrated things that seemed to be in opposition to each other. I might be willing to argue that the essence of America’s genius, America at its smartest is America figuring out how to do both: Wage war and eliminate casualties, grow the private sector and make the government work better, help the poor and teach them to work. In that sense I see your dad as a uniquely American genius, a man made for America, a man built to thrive in a country and at a time when genius was the “And.”
He was a man of startling achievement and genuine humility. He was a man of reason, law, logic and imagination. He was a man of dependability and trust and spontaneity and surprise. He was a man of BJU convictions and New Testament agape. He was a man of his sons and a man of his daughters. A man of the South and the North. A man of Yes and No. A man of the mind and a man of the heart.
Insomuch as I know your father, I know him in this way: Both. The genius of the “And.”
Although I couldn't say it better, I could say more.
He was a man of the morning and the evening. Always the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. He was a man who had really strong opinions about the smallest possible things. My siblings and I all got how-to lessons: how to correctly tear a sheet of paper from a legal pad, how to eat our cereal in order to get the correct ratio of cereal to milk, how to organize our closets so that we could get dressed in five minutes. He was a man of these strong opinions and a man of broad perspective and incredible balance.
He was a man who loved to save money, but he also loved salesmen. Not quite as much as they loved him. My dad was a man of breathtaking generosity and ridiculous frugality. He gave of himself ungrudgingly, freely and fully. But I know all of my siblings have experienced the mortification of going to a fast food restaurant with my dad. He always shook the fry container to settle the contents and then marched back up to the counter to ask the poor cashier: "You call this a large fry?"
He was a man of frustrating obliviousness and startling insight A man of thought and action, an introvert and an extrovert.
It’s true. He did resolve, blend together, a lot of contradictory things in life. But there were things he never fully resolved. One thing stands out particularly in my mind – he never liked being a lawyer. Not on a consistent basis. He didn’t feel that it was his highest calling. But he loved being everybody’s advocate. He loved to take something or someone and make it better, to amplify it, to make it bigger. And people with big ideas and plans found my dad.
Where do I begin with my dad? What do I focus on? It would be easy to focus on his intelligence. His impressive education, his ability to think. Many of you have mentioned these things in the past week. But that's not why you’re here today. You aren't here because my dad was interesting, but because he was interested. It wasn't that a smart man talked to you, but that a smart man talked to you.
If I have to cut (and I do), I will cut everything about my father that doesn't deal with his relationships with other people. He didn't just know and love words – he knew and loved conversation. The human connections, the human possibilities, he created with his words.