Friday, October 30, 2009

My Eulogy for Opa

Strangely enough, the story that sticks in my head about Opa isn't even something that happened to me. When Mom was sick, she and I talked a lot, sitting on the couch, between Mom's increasingly frequent naps. One of the stories that stuck the most is when Mom told me about doing the family chores when she was young. All the other kids avoided the after-dinner dishes, but Mom did them with Opa, and she says she loved doing the dishes, because it was an hour a day of Opa's undivided attention.

Maybe the story had a bit of extra meaning for me, because at the time, I was living in Mom and Dad's house, not working, to dedicate time to Dad and Mom. It might have been my own version of washing dishes with Opa, to sit across from Mom, to play some music she enjoyed, or chat, or share a story. Spending time with someone you love, I've realized, doesn't have to be meaningful. In fact, the meaningful stuff often doesn't come about without ordinary, un-meaningful time working like the soil where seeds of real closeness might grow. This is a lesson I've learned painfully this year. In a month visiting my family, it was good to have meetings, to get together, to talk about Big Stuff, but even while we discussed all kinds of deep or fun or far-reaching topics, when something went wrong at Dan's house, the people they called up for help were the ones who lived in town. The ones Silas felt comfortable with were the ones he saw daily or weekly, and it didn't matter to him that Dan and I shared a room for most of elementary school.

Opa was like that too, for me. It took a fair bit of poking and prodding for me to get any Big Topics out of him: it was more to the point to be with the people you loved, and to enjoy their company.

Opa was the gentlest man I knew. He was patient, and warm, not in the pull you off the ground with a bear-hug way, but in the "come over here and sit with me" way, and that made it easy to be comfortable around him. He had a sneaky, unforced wit that popped up from time to time, just rarely enough that I never expected it. I once asked him, after coming back to Canada from my first year in Korea, "Do you have any advice for me on how to live my life?" and he answered, "Don't get old." It's also impossible for me to think about Opa without thinking about my Mom, and or to think about Mom without thinking about Opa, because there was so much of Opa in Mom: the gentleness, the listening, the joy in being around the people she loved. Between them, with the simple way they both enjoyed being near the people they loved, the gentleness, the listening, the generosity, I think that they laid the groundwork for a lot of the best parts of my character.

Opa wrote two family histories. The first was about his father's generation, a history that started with a bunch of unfamiliar Dutch places and names that didn't mean a lot to me when I read it, and ended as a tender, admiring tribute to his father. The second volume was the story of his and his own children's lives, with stories about childhoods, courtships and marriages, and the like. But the more important heritage that Opa left us is first, a deep spiritual grounding, a Godly and faithful upbringing for all his children, that contributed to a powerful moral compass that I'm pretty sure has been passed on to every one of the grandchildren, too. Opa left in every person of his family, a softness that proves softness is not the same as weakness -- the gentleness of spirit that Opa lived out now repeats itself in his children and grandchildren. It's one of the best parts of me, when I let it come out. In fact, if you call and ask me what’s up, I’d tell you that one of the reasons this has been one of the hardest years of my life is because I haven't allowed that side of myself, the side that most resembles Opa, to come out more.

One of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life came about because of Opa. This was in 2003, my first year in Korea. It was June, just as I was starting to get my expat feet under me, and I got a call from Mom and Dad saying that Opa was in the hospital again, and not doing so well, and that I might need to schedule a trip back to Canada if I wanted to see him again. I went out for a walk around my neighborhood: walking is something I do when I can’t think of anything else to do, and as I came through the gates of the park built for the 1988 Seoul Olympics -- right near my house -- it was near sundown, not quite dusk yet, but the sun was low and the sun rays were getting long. I looked up, and saw a triple rainbow, with the middle one as flaming bright as any rainbow I've ever seen. Then I turned around, and a brilliant sunset seen circled the entire horizon, in every direction, from shades of pink and orange, to layers of clouds in purple and gold. Later I learned that a typhoon was approaching Seoul that day, and that’s why the moisture in the air led to a sunset rainbow, but all I felt was the peace that comes of being assured, "Things will be OK," by the only one big enough to make a sunset with a triple-rainbow. I love that from time to time, God chooses to talk to us by showing us staggeringly beautiful things, that only He could have invented, and just like Job, we're silenced with wonder, never bullied into submission, but awed back into trust.

And this time, well, I'm still waiting for the triple-rainbow, and the dishes in the sink are dirty, and I wish Opa could stand beside me and we could wash them together, and maybe talk, or maybe just be silent, and do a little task with someone we love, and have that be enough. And maybe the time we got to spend with Opa while he was here on Earth... maybe that was the triple rainbow. Maybe Opa's life, and his character, and the way he left himself behind in all of us, maybe that's more beautiful anyway, than some wild typhoon sunset. It's sad for us that he's gone, but it's good that we knew him, and maybe what we have to do next is find the people we love, the ones we want to be with, the ones we want to care for, the ones we want to remember us when we go to God, and wash some dishes together.

Goodbye Opa. We'll always miss you.

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