Today I was listening to a Russel Brand podcast and his guest was talking about his father and how his relationship with his father grounded him and allowed him to hold steady in times of difficulty. It made me reflect on my father and how this was true for me as well. I then began to ponder some of the real contentious issues of the day surrounding the so called culture wars. We seem to be living in such a polarised time, and this polarisation just doesn’t make sense to me. I think Hegel’s dialectic is an important concept, but as we don’t seem to be able to talk about differences today, the dialectical process won’t happen. Anyhow, as I was thinking about these two ideas (fathers and polarisation) I thought again about my father and his ability to live in the grey, liminal spaces, embracing both the light and the shade. I went back and read the eulogy I gave at dad’s funeral, and once again thought that his life has something to say about the crazy polarised world we are living in. Perhaps if we could embrace the complexity like dad did, we’d find a way to counteract these harmful centrifugal forces plaguing us today. I share that eulogy with you now.
Eulogy for Patrick C. Kelly
Written and delivered by Timothy B. Kelly
Transfiguration Catholic Church
18 August 2017
Mom asked me to speak at dad’s funeral and told me to talk about what he meant to me, about what he meant to the family, and about who he was…but to leave out the bad bits. I told her that the bad bits were part of what made him such an amazing person. She said, “well I guess so, but make sure to say good things about your mother.”
So I thought I better play it safe and start off with something good about mom. There is one thing for certain, she knew how to pick a good man…and she, like dad, had endurance. They both really needed it! Even if you find your soulmate, it’s still hard work.
In a world that wants everything to be black and white and good guys vs bad guys, we try to get rid of complexity. Life is complex and filled with shades of grey. Somehow, we all have to find our way through that mess of uncertainty and find a way to live decent, generous, principled and meaningful lives. My father did that and I will always have his example to guide me for the rest of my life.
My father was badly damaged in his childhood and carried ghosts with him for most of his life. He suffered abuse and neglect in all its various forms as a child. Despite those traumas he became a man capable of deeply loving others and forgiving those people and institutions who so badly failed and hurt him. Take for example his mother. He found a way to have a relationship with her as an adult and helped us kids to have a good relationship with her.
He was also able to forgive the Church and hold on to his deeply rooted faith, despite what had happened to him as a child and to our family. Outwardly his faith could be seen by his being a founding member of Transfiguration, being active in the life of Transfiguration for decades and being very involved in the Knights of Columbus. His faith was amazing to me. His was not a blind adherence to dogma or doctrine – for he knew his history all too well (and didn’t mind sharing that ad nauseam). He saw the Church and all her foible’s and loved her anyway. This love of the Church comes in no small part from the good priests and religious brothers in St Vincent’s in Latrobe Pennsylvania who taught him and nurtured him when his mother basically dumped him out of the house as a young boy. These good priests and brothers also helped dad develop his understanding of faith as a matter of conscience – rather than a faith built only on the dogma or doctrine. This matter of conscience is what guided dad.
Both of these examples, his relationship with his mother and with the Church, illustrate one of dad’s bests characteristics, and one I wish the whole world could emulate. Dad could see, hold, tolerate and embrace both the good and the bad in people and institutions. For all of us have good, bad and everything in between.
It’s hard to believe that a man whose own childhood was in many ways emotionally impoverished could be so incredibly imaginative, playful and attuned to children. But he was that. Some of my fondest memories of him as a very young child involved imagination. He could take us to imaginary worlds, create flights of fancy and plan for great adventure. We were in his world of make believe and took absolute delight in his play. He also liked to lay in the grass, look up at the clouds and see shapes. He was a practical joker, and he liked to play games. I think Kathy and I learned to play Rook, Pinochle and Cribbage before we learned our ABCs. He built model airplanes with Terry and me when we were as young as 5 or 6. He was very fond of Reney’s imaginary playmate – Emily. He and mom pretended to have magic and make our plates move during dinner. Dad was also VERY affectionate. Cuddles on the couch while watching TV, an arm around the shoulder while walking, kisses goodnight or of greeting – all of these were natural and second nature to dad. And then of course there was the music – man could he play the piano and sing. Dad also encouraged all of us to play sports and engage with other people. Both he and mom were involved with our sporting activities and friends. It was not unusual for our friends to come over to our house for fun, but many also developed their own relationships with dad…and some of you are here today.
So Dad was a gentle, nurturing, creative, affectionate loving and fun filled parent, but that is not the whole picture. It’s important to acknowledge all of who dad was and not whitewash the dark parts. He had a temper and could be quick to anger and that was really scary. There was also a period of several years when he became haunted by his own demons and they got the best of him. He started drinking too much and did things he regretted. But even during this dark period, that picture of the gentle giant that I painted was still also present in our house – darkness and light in one person. Life is complex and messy and good people sometimes do bad things. Eventually he came to terms with what he had done and was able to forgive himself –helped considerably by knowing we forgave and loved him.
Another key message from my father’s life is the value of unconditional love and he has been an amazing example of true unconditional love. Once he made the decision to love someone, his love was a rock – steadfast and unbending. His marriage to mom of 61½ years is testament to this. All of us kids have also felt that rock of dad’s unconditional love. The older 3 of us kids have each really put that to the test in different ways over the years, but dad’s love was unwavering. Well I think I almost did push it to the breaking point once. He almost disowned me when I came out as a vegetarian!
Dad was full of seeming contradictions. He was:
Playful – stern
Romantic – realistic/practical
Principled – but not rigid
A towering intellect who loved being a grunt
Imaginative – mechanical
Committed to his religion – embraced matters of conscience
Hilarious – dead serious
Light-filled – dark
Full of sorrow and hurt – yet joyful
Maybe it was his Celtic spirit – holding all these false dualities together into a whole. We Celts do love our simultaneous laughter and tears. Complexity makes life divine…and dad was truly divine.
I hope that dad’s life can be an example to us all about how to embrace the complexities of life and celebrate them. Let’s not try to put everything and everyone into boxes. Dad touched each and everyone here today and each of us will have the light/dark/shades of grey to who we are. And yet he loved because of our complexity.
One final note to you young people here, and especially to my nieces and nephews, one day it will be your turn to mourn your parents. Remember today, what I’ve said and the life of my father. All parents have their flaws, some are deeply flawed. And yet, despite dad’s flaws, he was able to leave this world having given each of us kids the sense of being deeply loved and this allows us each to flourish. I am so grateful that each of us kids was able to embrace the complexity that was our father and love him for who he was – the good bits and the bad bits. Dad died in the knowledge that his family reciprocated that unconditional, steadfast, accepting and unwavering love that he had for us. As a surviving child, this gives me great peace.