It has been awhile.. okay, a long while since I've posted. My father passed away on May 17th. When you lose someone you love so much it's like the whole world goes into "shut down" mode.... and everything still feels completely upside down. I find myself tentatively stepping back into aspects of my life- because re-starting each is an acknowledgement of things going on- without dad- and I still just can't quite come to terms with that. Blogging is especially strange because this blog has, for me, been such a celebration of optimism and forward motion with rebuilding our house and also because many if not most of the people who check in here are people I've never met in person so to share this deeply personal time is somewhat strange.
I spoke at my father's memorial a week ago. I had to prepare something. At first I was so completely overwhelmed- how could I possibly summarize in a few paragraphs, a few minutes, everything that Dad was and meant to us. Realizing that there was no way or expectation to do that... I sat down to write and it was one of those uncanny times that it just came together. I feel like in order to move forward with this blog I need to acknowledge this incredible loss in my life..... I don't know how to do that really... but I think the worst way would to be inauthentic, forced. So at the risk of being too personal, I'm going to post what I read at my dad's memorial because I feel like it best captures him and me and what an incredible man and father he was.
(my parents on my wedding day, November 2005)
Some of you knew my father for many more years than I did, but I’m one of the very select few who can say that I knew him my whole life. I feel so lucky to be the daughter of Peter Gray…. Particularly because as I understand it, he didn’t intend to have kids! Before they were married, he confided this to Mom, who, I imagine, gave her understanding and reassuring nod. A few years into their marriage, however, she presented him with a proposal- literally, on poster board- which lauded all the benefits of having children including, “Someone to bring you your slippers after a long day!” The presentation must have been compelling because here I am-- and seeing as my little brother came along a few years later, I take a certain pride in having further convinced my dad on the benefits of having children… of course, the other argument would be that I didn’t adequately fulfill my slipper-bearing duties, so they had to try again.
Dad was a phenomenal father from the beginning. He was in between jobs when I was born and reportedly put a call from a prospective job on hold, explaining that he was in the middle of changing his daughter’s diaper. (He got the job offer). Maybe that experience reinforced his natural instinct to put his family first because, as his family, we certainly always felt that way. Though my father spent many nights and weekends working up in his study while listening to WQXR or the opera, the door was always ajar—and my brother and I knew that we could knock softly and enter if we needed anything- a snack, to show off a new dance move, or for Dad reconcile one of our sibling disputes. Dad never missed a dance performance or school concert. He sat through hour upon hour of music recitals beaming with pride, he helped us decorate our bikes for the forth of July parades, went camping with the cub-scouts, put up with the giggles and gossip from my middle school slumber parties, read us bedtime stories, comforted us through late night thunderstorms, and bandaged up our skinned knees.
Dad always had a smile for his kids. Even as his illness progressed and he was unable to speak much, if I prompted, ‘I love you daddy” he wouldn’t skip a beat to respond, “I love you too kiddo.”
My dad had good veins and strong hands. He had thick hair with just a few touches of grey. He had “Gray family” eyebrows but only grew a beard once, when we were very young and he was in bed with pneumonia and unable to shave. My dad had soft brown eyes. He wore a suit and tie exceptionally well and his shoes were always polished. My dad smelled like Old Spice. His handwriting was not good, but I like to think that was expressive of his brilliance. My dad enjoyed good food and fine wine, but relaxed with a beer. He was not very good at braiding his daughter’s hair, but he tried once or twice to please me. My Dad broke his toe trying to teach us kids how to do a headstand in the den one night after dinner. He was always level headed- I can’t remember ever once hearing him raise his voice in anger. He was incredibly patient- even when attempting to teach his headstrong 16 year old daughter how to drive stick-shift in an old Volvo station wagon that kept stalling in traffic. My father loved music—one of my favorite childhood memories is him and my mom playing piano together in the living room and I remember them getting dressed up and leaving us with babysitters so they could go to their subscription at the New York Philharmonic. My dad walked me down the aisle and danced with me at our wedding. He was handsome, polite, and happy. My dad was also- hands down- the smartest man I’ve ever met.
No question- I only got through trigonometry and calculus with his help. At Exeter the math curriculum was taught without any kind of text book- as students, we were expected to deduce the theorems from the problems the teachers assigned to us. I’m sure my father would have excelled in such a curriculum, but I struggled a bit. Lucky for me, somehow dad and I coordinated a few 6am phone calls: Me, calling from the payphones in the dark echoy basement of my dorm and Dad patiently walking me through various problems between mouthfuls of cornflakes before he headed off to work. I even remember one especially difficult weekend of homework where Dad faxed some of his diagrams to a place in town so we could be looking at the same thing as we talked. My dad was super smart, but he also had a true gift for teaching. If I didn’t understand it one way, he would try another approach and another… until I got it. Then, to test my true understanding, he would have me “teach” it back to him.
When I was home on breaks from high school and college, Dad would schedule a time where just he and I would go out for lunch. These were some of my most treasured times because it was just the two of us and always gave me incredible insight into all the big questions of that time. Dad had a unique talent of framing an issue. After I poured my tangled teenage heart and soul onto the table, he would start, “What I hear you saying is this….” And somehow repeat all the key points of my tirade in a clear, sensible outline which suddenly brought the issues into focus for me. I remember one particular lunch when I was agonizing over whether or not to go to music school. Dad said something to me that one can only make a decision based on the information one has at the time. As such, there can be good decisions that have bad outcomes and “bad decisions” with good outcomes. In other words make the best decision you can and don’t obsess too much about the outcome. He also said sometimes you just go with your heart.
The support of my father to go with my heart was one of the greatest gifts and I imagine that my brother feels the same way. His wisdom in this matter allowed us to pursue our education, our passions, our dreams and even lead us to finding spouses with whom we share the same kind of loving marriage we witnessed between our mom and dad.
When we were young, each night after the full bedtime routine- baths, stories, songs, and kisses- we developed a little tradition in our family. After tucking us in, but before leaving us completely, Mom or Dad- or sometimes both- would call up from the landing on the stairs, “I’m at the bottom!” My brother and I, in unison, would call from the darkness of our bedrooms, “Goodbye, goodnight, and I love you. Sweet dreams, sweet dreams, sweet dreams and what can I think about.” Mom and Dad would then call back from the light of the landing, “Goodbye, goodnight and I love you. Sweet dreams, sweet dreams, sweet dreams….” and give us something to think about as we drifted into sleep—maybe what our Halloween costumes would be or what our favorite ice cream flavor was or our spelling words for that week, or all the places in the world we wanted to visit…
I can’t imagine never hearing my dad’s voice again… but that’s one of the things I can still hear him saying so vividly... and it’s been kind of going around and around my head lately as if there’s some voice in my head that keeps calling to my dad, “Goodbye, goodnight and I love you, sweet dreams, sweet dreams, sweet dreams…” and when I tune into it, I can just hear him saying it back to me knowing he gave us a whole lifetime of things to think about.