Eight days ago, I stood in a pulpit and eulogized my father.
Considering the current state of affairs, I have no clue when I'll be able to write something original. I'm hoping it'll be next week, but I'm fully prepared for this to take some time. In the interim, I'm going to share what I hope was a decent eulogy. This one won't be as melancholy as the first, I promise.
In order to graduate from college, I had to take a class titled “Principles of Speech” sophomore year. In that class, one of the speeches we were assigned to give was a eulogy. Yes, apparently there is a formula for doing these things.
I’m fairly certain none of those rules will be used by me today, because this is certainly different for me.
This is, by far, the hardest thing I've ever done, and might be the hardest thing I ever do.
I've been up-and-down the spectrum of emotion the past two weeks. The constant feeling throughout these fourteen days, though, has been complete confusion.
I doubt any of this will make sense to me any time soon. I never expected to be eulogizing my father while we watched the Michigan State game on New Year's Eve, or when I hugged him goodbye after we'd eaten dinner, or when I called to tell him Happy New Year at midnight January 1.
And yet, here we are. I don't like it. I'll go a step further: I hate it. This is the worst pain I've ever felt. And despite me saying all this, I honestly wouldn't want anyone else doing this. I've had the privilege of having this man as my father for the nearly 24 years I've been on this earth, so I'm confident the only person who knows him better than me is his wife, and she wasn't doing it.
So, this is something like my last attempt to do right by my daddy. Actually, let me rephrase that, because I'll never stop attempting to do right by him. It's psychological at this point. He's programmed me. This is my last chance to do right by him with him physically here. So, for whatever that's worth, this is a really big deal for me. And I promise to try to keep it together, because this is a celebration of the wonderful life he lived. So, I'd appreciate it if we could try to hold the tears for the next ten minutes, because I'm bad at not crying when I see the folks I care about crying. Ten minutes, all I'm asking. Feel free to start back up after I sit back down. Good? Good.
As we sat with my dad last week, my stepmom mused about his three loves: her, me, and the Detroit Fire Department. We talked and laughed about it for a moment, but my brain was fried at that point, so at no point did I consider that quality material for a eulogy. But as I started thinking about what exactly I wanted to say, breaking it down into those three things started making a ton of sense. People like hearing about things in threes. I think I learned that at one of those schools he paid for. So, in reverse order:
First, the Detroit Fire Department.
I remember calling the fire house as a kid and some random guy would answer and I'd go, "Can I talk to my daddy?" And he'd go, "Well, whose exactly is your dad?" And I'd panic and hang up.
I also still have - well, I don't have it, but my mom still has it - my Student of the Week award from around that same age. Name, age, favorite color, favorite book, and what you want to be when you grow up. I put firefighter first.
The Detroit Fire Department has taken excellent care of my father, my stepmother, and me, and he showed his appreciation through his loyalty to the department. He took so much pride in his job. I never knew the guy to take a day off, unless he was going on a golf trip or taking the Mrs. on vacation. Somebody might make him mad, or he might have to tell some folks about themselves, but none of that took from how much he enjoyed being part of a club he saw as very exclusive.
Also, I loved whenever he moved up in rank. It's peculiar, I know. But once he stopped fighting fires full-time and transitioned into PGU, the City gave him a phone, and at first, he'd answer "Lieutenant Sanders," and then, "Captain Sanders," and then "Chief Sanders," and it was always so fulfilling, because it felt like I'd watched my dad achieve another goal he could check off. He'd always give me the inside scoop on how many folks were ahead of him, and once he said he was up next, I'd be as anxious as he was.
In hindsight, knowing what I know now, I could never fight fires. I'm way too afraid of way too many things to be effective at that job. I was an easily scared child, too, which means I literally wrote that down on the strength of my father. But, hey, that's how much he loved doing what he did. His love of the gig somehow convinced me to disregard the entire premise of the job is running toward a fire.
But I digress.
I guess that's a decent enough segue into my relationship with my dad, which I'll try to not harp on too much. But I'll start at the beginning 23 years and 7 months ago when, according to him, after my birth, I a) did not cry and b) attached myself to his middle finger. I, of course, cannot verify the story, and I'm not sure if my mother ever has, but that is how he has told it to me, and if we believe that story, I guess you can say we got off to a good start.
Brenda said the first time she saw me, he and I were in the bed, me laying on his stomach, and that's typically how it would go. I was annoying with how much I wanted to be around my daddy as a kid. I actively searched for excuses for him to pick me up. Once I figured out his work schedule, it was on. It rarely worked, considering I never considered he and my stepmother had lives of their own, but I really don't think I can be blamed for trying. "You never know what you can get until you ask for it." His words.
The only person I held on the same level as my daddy as a kid was Michael Jordan, and as much as I was obsessed with Michael Jordan, as Brenda can attest to, that's a big deal. To me, here was nobody cooler than my dad. It was always a big deal for me when he'd come pick me up from school or latchkey and I could semi-show him off. I'd take a little longer than usual getting my backpack and coat just to milk it. I knew about the times I would see him, but random days during the week were always like a special surprise. I never knew if I'd be with him for a few minutes or a few hours, but hanging out with my dad on a random Tuesday night could probably trump most things that excited me back then.
It wasn't all butterflies and roses and rainbows, though. He'd make me mad because he wouldn't let me have my way, and I'd sulk and hide in my room all weekend until he and Brenda would force me to come out and socialize with them. Then, the ultimate running joke: he'd play The Temptations' "Runaway Child, Running Wild," and ask if I was considering running away since I was so mad at him. God I hate that song.
He was funny. And logical. Too logical. I guess that's why I overanalyze everything. But that's why I loved talking to him. He'd be brutally honest with me, because, in his words, "I want to make you aware of all the options." But we'd always talk things through, and I left every conversation with him smarter than I entered it. "I don't want you to ever come to me and say I didn't know," he'd tell me, "because if you didn't know, I didn't do my job."
These past two years, he's been my best friend, and it's not even close. Every single time I've needed him, he's come through, and I know it's because he and Brenda always wanted me to be great. This is my last story about he and I, because I don't want this to drag on too much longer, but 32 days ago, I visited the house after church, and while we're watching the Lions game, he proceeds to tell me he now has hard evidence Ted Cruz can't run for President. I laughed, because it is very clear Ted Cruz can run for President. But my dad hates Ted Cruz. He'd been looking forward to that moment for months. Eventually, it escalates into a shouting match: I don't trust his sources, he doesn't trust mine, and we ultimately got absolutely nowhere. And despite all that, it was amazing. I had so much fun. Never in a million years would he concede that I was right. But I think he knew I had him that time. I'm claiming that one as a victory for me.
Over the summer, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me," an amazing read if you haven't yet, and Coates puts a line in there about fatherhood that continues to scare me. "There was before you, and then there was after," Coates writes. "I submitted before your needs, and I knew then that I must survive for something more than survival's sake. I must survive for you." That should be the requisite amount of love a parent has for his child, and I know that my dad loved me that deeply. He's shown me how to be a good father. There is no one way to do it. But his way worked out pretty good, and I'm forever thankful God gave me him. I can't imagine my life any other way.
Which is another adequate segue into my dad's love of my stepmom, because I'm also forever thankful for her and also can't imagine my life had she not been around.
I always just thought you two worked. "Effective" is a weird word to use to describe a relationship, but you two were effective. I'd love to have an effective marriage if it works as well as yours did.
You two adored each other. I loved when y'all would go out together and you'd come back fake-mad because someone was looking at him or when, after not dealing with each other all afternoon, he'd come up from the basement and unprompted tell you that he loved his wife today with a kiss in tow. Y'all would argue about nothing - many of those arguments I'd find myself in the middle of - you'd let him have it because he was always right, as we all know, y'all would laugh about it, kiss, and it'd be over. The pettiest fights, though. My lord, like 73% of those arguments were absolutely petty. Funny, though. I got plenty good laughs from you two.
I remember watching you two dance one random night to "At Last." I was sitting on the steps and you two sauntered across the living room and it was the cutest thing I'd ever seen. You and he had to have been together at least fifteen years by that point, but you two stared at each other like it was still 1992. There was no uncertainty how much you cared for each other. I probably made some joke to y'all about how corny the moment was, but that moment was pure.
It absolutely sucks that we don't have him here anymore to love us as madly and unconditionally as only he could, but I'm at peace knowing he's at peace and that we still have each other, Mrs. Sanders. You're stuck with me forever, man. Hope that's not too much of a problem.
You've worked and labored and did all you could to keep him here, and for that, you deserve all the rest you can get. I know the only person happier than me about having you is him, and I'm eternally grateful my dad has a wife and I have a stepmother who is as selfless and caring as you. I love you. We'll get through this together. I promise.
My dad, in his eternal coolness, ended all his phone calls the same way: "in a minute!" So I guess that's how I'll end this. I'll see you in a minute, Dad. In a minute.