“If it’s not about love, well… it’s not about anything” – A Tribute to my Dad

Dad and I always imagined that he would be the priest at my wedding, one distant day in the future. In fact, we joked about it just the day before he had the first heart attack. But instead, only a few weeks later, I’m standing here speaking at Dad’s funeral.

I know that this must seem like a horrible connection to draw, an ugly juxtaposition between one thing so hopeful and another so final, but as the stony reality of what’s happened begins to sink in, it is in this connection that I’ve found beauty. For when I sat down and began to think about what I wanted to say to you all today, I realised that what I want to say is not so very different from what Dad would have said at his children’s weddings, since really I just want to talk about love, because love is what, most of all, my father taught me.

Dad taught me about the eternal strength of love one afternoon in the living room. I remember very clearly, when I was around four or five years old, turning to Dad as we sat side by side on the sofa and asking him, completely earnestly, “Dad, how long would you be sad for if I died?”

Dad turned to me, equally seriously, and said, “I would never stop being sad. I would be sad for the rest of my life.”

I thought about this. His answer had surprised me. I’d been expecting something more easily quantifiable than “forever”. I’d been expecting something between six months and a couple of years — this is what, as a small child, I’d judged to be an acceptable period of grieving. But no, Dad was telling me that he would be sad forever, and I remember looking at him and thinking “Woah, Dad must really love me….”

Dad taught me that love is urgent, that it can burn itself into you and then slip away again as easily as a dream unless you really, really grip it tight. Dad taught me this one evening in front of the TV. We were watching “Love Actually” — I’m sure most of you have watched this film at Christmastime. In that nail-biting, heart-melting scene where the little boy is tearing through the airport so that he can tell the little girl he loves her before she moves to the USA, Dad turned to me, his eyes all misty, and said, “Emmeline, one day you’re going to fall in love and when you do you have to tell them, you have to, because otherwise you’ll regret it forever.”

I was about fourteen when Dad gave me this piece of advice and I think I mumbled something in response about him being all embarrassing and soppy; but for Dad this wasn’t something soppy and trivial. Dad lived his life by this rule. 

Indeed, one afternoon 22 years ago, my Mum was sitting in her office in Southampton when a man she’d met a few times showed up in the doorway.

“I’m sorry to barge in on you like this,” the man said, “but I just had to tell you that I’m crazy mad about you.”

Of course, this man was my Dad, seizing love. When I first heard this story of his impulsive words as he suddenly realised that he was in love, I was straight away reminded of one of my favourite quotations from E. M. Forster, which goes: “When I think of what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love… it is one of the moments for which the world was made.” Dad knew that this, that moment when you realise that you’re in love, is a moment for which the world was made.

Dad taught me about love in the way he cared for Marianne, Ben and me. We spent our summers in a Canadian town called Crystal Beach, just by Lake Erie. Practically every day Marianne, Ben and I would play in the lake together and my Dad would sit on the shore watching, almost not blinking, ready to run in and save us should any of us get into difficulty. My Dad was the sort of Dad who built us a treehouse in the back yard and then, when we outgrew it, pulled it down to make a special place in the trees for our Mum to read. He was the sort of Dad who taught us to ride our bikes, told us bedtime stories about a little girl called Fartalina and made us a strange floury watery concoction with which to have our very own food fight (much to my Mum’s horror).  

Dad taught me about love in his relationship with my Mum. I’m struggling to know what to say here, because I don’t know how to articulate the level of tragedy that occurs when two people who have promised to spend their lives together, looked forward to the rest of their lives together, spent the last two decades together as a team and a partnership, are so suddenly and so untimely ripped apart. I don’t know what to say here.

All I know is that my Dad did not want to leave my Mum, not at all, not ever. The house at the moment is covered in magazines and guidebooks about all the places Dad was going to visit with Mum after he retired. And even spending life together wasn’t going to be enough for Dad, because for him it never was “till death do us part”. My Dad believed in everlasting life in the Kingdom of God and for Dad this love and partnership that he had entered into with my Mum was not for life but for ever.

In fact, it was this type of love — committed, long-term, public love between two adults — that had such a great impact on my Dad’s entire understanding of the world. The death of my grandfather, my Dad’s father, when my Dad was 33 shook and reformed his understanding of his role in life. Dad remembered witnessing the last few moments that his parents spent together before his father died. It was one loving caress that stayed with my Dad more than anything else. In that touch my Dad saw the depth of their love, the goodness and the purity of their love and, more than anything, I think my Dad saw the bravery in their love — in a sense all love is scary because it carries with it the prospect of loss, and my Dad felt this as he was confronted with the incredible pain his parents felt in losing one another. 

At this time my Dad was a Jesuit and he later wrote that it was at this moment that he suddenly began to see his celibacy as a form of cowardice, because he would never know this love and in that way he was protecting himself from such painful and profound loss. 

A few years later my Dad left the Jesuits and then Catholicism altogether. This was not because my Dad no longer wanted to devote himself to God, indeed he always considered himself a Jesuit, but because of a change in his interpretation of the relationship between love of God and love between human beings. Watching the love and the loss that his parents shared, he saw that loving another human with all your heart and soul is no incompatibility with love of God. In 1 John we are told that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us”. My Dad believed this: that there was no conflict, no divide, between his love of and faith in God and his love for my Mum, Marianne, Ben and me. It was never a question of loving God or loving us; the two were inseparable for Dad. They were two interwoven elements in a life governed by love.

I started speaking to you today by talking about weddings. The reason my Dad and I were talking about this just before he died was that he was writing a wedding sermon for our friends, Ashley and Julian. My Dad called me into the dining room to get me to read it through to see what I thought. This is what my Dad had written: “What I see today is a public statement… that life is ultimately all about love; that life must ultimately be about love; that, if it’s not about love, well… it’s not about anything.” This is the truth that my Dad lived by. Love and love and keep loving until you feel as though your heart might burst, as though you just can’t possibly love any more. This is what Dad believed and this is the principle that underpinned his life. We all knew my Dad in different ways and we all have different memories that we will cherish, but if there is one thing that we may collectively remember about my father, it is this: his overwhelming capacity for love. And even more importantly than simply remembering, we can take this truth and use it to inspire us, as it inspired my Dad, to really and truly open our hearts, to work for a fairer world. 

So now I just want to say, for one last time: I love you, Dad. We all love you. Forever. For always.

Love is Brave: Lessons in Loss

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Ten days ago I was on the bus on my way home from Zaatari Village where I’d been helping to run an activity day for Syrian refugee children living there.

I was sitting with my face pressed up against the window as I watched the crumbling homes and the UNHCR-provided tents whiz past me and out of sight. As always on this journey, I was berating myself for the inadequacy of my own experiences of pain as compared to those of the children in that village who have lost so much: homes, family, friends, futures.

What I didn’t realise is just how much I should have cherished that utter ignorance. I’d become so used to the guilt of being the lucky one, the one who’d never experienced loss, that I forgot that one day it would come for me too. Playing with the children in Zaatari Village, I never thought that it was my own family that was in danger. I didn’t know that back in the UK my Dad had just died.

How do you talk about grief? At the moment I don’t really feel. Mostly there is numbness and even when the tears come I know that I am tiptoeing around the real pain. My body is stubbornly protecting me; my head is too scared of the vulnerability to really dive down to those depths of human hurt. So at the moment I exist in a grey space in my head, where there are no feelings and where hours last for days.

In this strange space there is a lot of time to think. Mostly I think about my Dad, but I also find my thoughts returning again and again to the people who taught me about loss, and about its relationship to love and to hope. These people are all refugees and it is in their lessons that I find comfort now.

I was fifteen when I began working at a refugee service in Newcastle. I returned home from my first day there completely exhausted and fell into bed at 6pm. I’d been confronted with more human pain than I’d ever witnessed before. I remember one man I met that day particularly clearly. He was probably in his forties and had arrived in the UK only recently. He sat at the desk opposite the support worker.

“I just can’t find them,” he was saying, referring to his wife and children who were still in Uganda, as the support worker looked for more numbers he could ring.

The conversation continued for a while. It wasn’t particularly hopeful.

“They’re my children,” he said, quietly, before he left.

I remember that man because I remember thinking I had never seen a person more on the verge of collapse. His eyes were exhausted, frightened, shocked. His movements were gentle but quick as though he feared that his time was almost up. He sat slumped, almost defeated. He was not a small man but in that moment he looked tiny and frail on the chair.

This is just one person out of the many I met whose grief appeared like constant shadows on their faces.

It was a particularly cold winter that year. I remember another man, he was in his early twenties, sitting quietly, looking out the window.

He turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen snow before.”

But there was no excitement at the sight of these unfamiliar flakes — only exhaustion at the approach of yet another phenomenon that was new, strange and unfriendly. We spoke for another five minutes or so. In every word he said you could hear the ache for home, for all that he’d lost.

Working at the refugee service was the first time that I witnessed loss. At first it drained me, but then slowly I began to see something horribly, achingly beautiful in the way that human beings react to loss, in the way that we grieve. I don’t want this to sound dismissive or patronising because I know that grief does not feel beautiful to the griever and indeed in many ways it isn’t. But at the same time I do believe it is evidence of a heart being broken, and in that sense it is a potent reminder of our humanity. Grief, in all its horrendousness and pain, is a shocking proof of love.

It was this that taught me that love is brave, so incredibly brave. The men whom I mentioned earlier, they were hurting because their hearts were breaking, and their hearts were breaking because they had dared to love, and now they had to deal with loss.

All love carries with it the prospect of loss, and yet we do it anyway.

We continue to make ourselves fragile, vulnerable to this kind of pain. I saw it all the time at the refugee service and I see it in Zaatari Village: people who have lost people, and felt pain because they loved those people, continuing to love: this is bravery.

It was witnessing grief, then, that taught me so much about the the strength of love and, over the past few days, reading back through my Dad’s old sermons and speeches, it seems that he also learnt about love through loss.

My Dad’s father died when my Dad was in his thirties. He remembered watching his parents as they spent their last few moments together, and it was one loving caress from his father to his mother that stayed with him. In that touch he saw the depth of their love, the goodness and the purity in their love and, most importantly, he saw the bravery in their love because he could see how much it hurt them to say goodbye. He saw that daring to love another person this much requires a stoic acceptance that one day you may have to cope with a colossal loss.

At that time my Dad was a Jesuit, a type of Catholic monk, and he later wrote that it was at this moment that he started to see his celibacy almost as cowardice, because he would never know this love and in this way he was protecting himself from such painful and profound loss. This was what set my Dad re-thinking his role in life, re-thinking his choice to be a monk, and ultimately arriving (luckily for me) at the decision that having a family, being a loving husband and father, was not only the best and most brave thing that he could do but also totally in harmony with priesthood and his religious life. (When my Dad left the Jesuits he did not give up priesthood but entered the Anglican church instead.)

It was witnessing loss that led my Dad to see the incredible value in human love.

So as I said, I am in the grey space where there is nothing. I know it’ll get worse before it gets better. But as my family and I move through this, I will remember these lessons in loss taught to me by people who had lost almost everything: that it only hurts because we are human, because we love, and that in itself is beautiful.

This may sound like an odd way to deal with loss, but the only way I know to cope with the most horrible aspects of life is to try to create beauty in their place – to find something good.

So I will remember that there is no loss without love; that a heart can’t be broken if there was nothing there to break; and that this pain is really a reminder of all the beauty Dad brought to my life and to the lives of my Mum, my sister and my brother.

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