“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.

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

  1. What a wonderful testimony – to the God who loved us into the world, and to his servant, Papa Joe’, who knew what he was talking about because he lived it! May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

    Like

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