Please Speak Ill of the Dead

Me with my dadThe other day, David (aka “The Man”) said to me that he thought he wasn’t as good of a man as his father had been. His father died nearly two years ago now, and there were thoughts from the family on Memorial Day (he was a Marine in the South Pacific in WWII) and photos of visits to the cemetery. So I wasn’t at all surprised this was on David’s mind, nor that he felt that way.

Instead, I thought, “yep, right on schedule.”

Longtime readers of this blog likely know that my own father died when I was very young – three years old. That’s me with him above. He was an Air Force fighter pilot who went down in his F-4. I have two memories of him – and those are vague, brief snippets. Otherwise I grew up with the knowledge that he’d died and I hadn’t really known him.

Which means most everything I know about my father came from other people and what they told me about him. When I was a little girl, I thought of my dad as this amazing, saintly, superheroic man who could do not wrong. Smart, handsome, loving, shining integrity, brave… Flawless. As I got older, it became clear to me that he could not have been flawless. No human being is. The fault lay in the people who told me about him, because they gave me a relentlessly sanitized version of who he’d been.

You know the old saw – “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”

Once I figured this out, I got better at asking the right questions. I asked my mother and my dad’s brother what they hadn’t liked about my dad. What habits had driven them crazy. What was the biggest fight they ever had. My grandmother stubbornly refused to answer anything like this. My father had been an angel on earth and that’s all there was to it. But the other answers – once people got over their hesitation to be critical of a man who’d died tragically, much too young – those were the stories who fleshed out his character. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a real sense of my father as a person.

It meant so much to me.

So, now, nearly two years later, I’m not at all surprised that David’s dad is looming large in his mind. A man of great character and accomplishments, who we all loved and miss greatly. But he wasn’t perfect. I reminded David of that and we talked about the things his dad did that drove him crazy, mistakes he’d made, the biggest fights they’d had. And that helped put things back in perspective.

In some ways we always measure ourselves in comparison to our parents. A difficult thing because that’s so difficult to do with any objectivity. Especially once a parent is gone and the cheerful whitewashing begins.

But I know I’m no saint – and neither was my father. I love him all the better for it.

6 Replies to “Please Speak Ill of the Dead”

  1. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but my 22YO cousin was killed in a motorcycle crash about 7 years ago. It was late September when it happened, and there was a lot of turmoil at the time. Was he speeding? Was the semi on the wrong side of the road? Did Greg lay down his bike? So Christmas was HARD. But we were GOING. TO. GET. THROUGH. We’re a small family, so his loss left a huge hole. But most of the women in our family (and one of the men) are all in the medical field, so we were all very realistic about death and dealing with it, and knew the power of telling stories and remembering people.

    So here it is, Christmas day, and there’s Karen & Jimmy (Greg’s parents), his older sister Allison, his younger brother Chris, mom and I, and my other aunt and uncle. We decide we need a break, so we pull out Taboo. The goal of Taboo is to get your team to say a word without using any of the words on the Taboo list. It was Chris’ turn.

    “Greg is one of these…”

    Ummm…Okay. So we throw out the more polite terms. Blond, Short, Smart, Annoying, etc. And it goes on and on. Finally Karen says “Dead,” but she does it laughing, so we all keep going. Gone, Young, Pointy-chinned, etc. We were desperate! Time was running out. WTH did Chris MEAN?!

    the buzzer sounds and Chris looks at us all with disgust. “ANGEL. Greg is an ANGEL.”

    There’s this moment of dead silence. Then all of a sudden Karen snorts. Then Jimmy snickers. And my eyes are watering. Next thing I know we’re all laughing so hard we can’t breathe. We’re DYING.

    Karen turns to Chris and says, still laughing, “Darling, your father and I loved Greg more than anything. But the LAST thing he will EVER be is an ANGEL. Because you just know he’s up there blowing stuff up or making things go faster just to see if it can. He’ll be lucky if he’s not the first person kicked out of Heaven for speeding tickets.”

    All those memories of how horrible that time was, and how hard and painful the entire year was, and yet I still remember that first Christmas and laughing until my sides hurt the next day. We loved Greg. Without a doubt. But we knew him. And he was NO angel. LOLOL.

    1. I love this, Lynda! I think loving someone FOR their flaws is the closest we come to transcendence. This is a wonderful memory of such a tragic time. 🙂

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. My own father died at 48 when I was 5 years old (58 years ago!), so my memories are also very vague. I’m lucky to have a number of old black and white photos of him, so at least I know what he looked like. He was a man with many flaws, but I have to believe he loved his family. Knowing he was not perfect has always made me able to see him as a real person and not a hero. I think that’s a good thing.

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