What I Learned About Life From My Father’s Death

It’s been a little over two months since my father died. After an unnecessary operation for a “pre-cancerous” stomach condition, the surgeons discovered a large tumor in his lung. They went forward with the removal of a length of gut, sewed him back up, and advised him to see an oncologist.

Had they discovered the tumor prior to surgery, he probably wouldn’t have lived any longer. But he may have been able to spend his last few months in relative ease and comfort, instead of sick, groggy, and attached to all sorts of expensive machines.

Still, he would have died. As we all will.

If you are old enough to read this, your chances of living into your mid-70s are very high. Your chances of living much beyond that? Very slim. So live well and enjoy your work. It’s not the extra years that count, for they are few even if you get them. What matters is the life you live during the time you have.

For the most part, my dad lived as if he understood that.

Growing up in the Bronx, he was an early standout in high school, winning top honors in both mathematics and English during his senior year — the first time anyone had done that in the city’s history. After Pearl Harbor, he walked away from an opportunity for a career in radio (he was slotted to be Abbot in one of the early pre-Abbot-and-Costello comedy acts). He joined the Navy and spent the war as captain of a ship in the Pacific.

After the war, he enrolled in a theater course at Catholic University of America. When he first saw his teacher (he liked to say she had the profile of a Greek goddess), his future was fixed.

They married and moved to Guatemala, where my mother got a job teaching English. Dad worked as a security guard at night, which gave him time to write plays and novels during the day. In 1950, they had their first child. About a month later, a revolution broke out. My father baptized my sister under the kitchen table after a bomb flattened the refrigerator.

One child led to another, and before Dad knew it there was no room in his life for writing. What started as a promising career in the arts changed into a long and faithful lifetime of teaching. He wasn’t alone in this. Thousands of other men and women of his generation and mine have done the same.

He turned out to be an exceptional teacher. For 30 years, he taught English literature to undergraduates, math skills to high school students, and business writing to executives. It wasn’t until he retired that he was able to get back to his youthful ambitions: flying planes, acting, and, finally, writing a book (which he never finished). During his life, he had the gift of good friendship. Thanks to my mother’s wide soul, he enjoyed the warmth and companionship of professors and plumbers, scientists and union bosses, playwrights and criminals, artists, priests, and bag ladies. There was never a day that passed in our house of eight children that some guest or neighbor wasn’t sitting in the living room when I came home or at the table at dinnertime.

Many of these guests were nuns and priests that taught at the Catholic college my parents worked for. They ranged from fundamental to evangelical to freaky. My father himself would have been described at the time as a “lapsed” Catholic — but I prefer to think of him as devotedly agnostic. Like everything else in his life, his relationship to religion was compromised and complicated. He didn’t keep his ambivalence a secret. But the religious people whom he worked for never seemed to mind too much. One, a priest and writer, composed the following eulogy, which he read at the funeral. It says something about religiosity and living a good life. I thought you might enjoy it, as I did.

In Memory of a Great Man

by Father Tom Catania, July 17, 2004

“No one who knows the full saga of Frank’s life would say he bore a light burden, howsoever lightly he bore his burdens, nor that his yoke was always easy, howsoever many yokes he cracked in the course of making the delightful omelet that is, in retrospect, his incomparable life. Dedication always comes at cost, and Frank was nothing if not dedicated — first and foremost to his family, but with fierce passion too to his art, his profession, and to the endless possibilities that human life held out to him. And so I would say, to turn the gospel on its side just a bit, that in Frank we who were graced by him were able to have a first-hand experience of this text; Frank’s life was to make our yokes a bit easier and our burdens a bit lighter. Be quiet in there, Frank, you were a model Christian.

“For a Christian is not one who by a regimen of rigid obedience wins in the end a kind of supernatural Good Conduct Medal; still less one whose searching soul is silenced with the censure of incense. A Christian is simply one who finds joy in living, in living for others, in living amid mystery. And, Frank, admit it, you were all of these. Let’s take a look, Frank, at what we remember of you — the legacy you left us that will stretch our souls as you did the imaginations and minds of legions of students.

“You were a teacher — a great one, I might add — and specifically a teacher of language at its loftiest (and its most lecherous). You were an actor — it is reputed that the spirit of James Burbage leapt in amazement the first time you delivered a speech of Othello’s to a post-bobby-sox generation. And you were a man of the cloth; all right, a cloth napkin . . . all right, a paper napkin . . . all right, a Kleenex — whatever it took to provide a modicum of tidiness at the reception . . . all right, party . . . all right, downright dig-in and down-’em-it-ain’t-such-a-bad-life-after-all bash!

“Language delighted you; you delighted the language. Speech for you was no filling of air with sound, but the making-it-boom-with-mystery magic that only a few possess. And it was the mystery of meaning that you probed till your dying day through the medium that enchanted you; words and their shapes and sounds and silliness. When you spoke to us you were also in harmony with a kind of bloom that made your whole self shine like one who’d caught a breath of the ineffable ether. The kind of thing Jesus must have exuded in his sheer delight in what could be.

“And too you were an actor — what good teacher isn’t? — but no mere chameleon or chewer of scenery. Your delight was not the extrovert’s alone — though shrinking violet is not a phrase I would apply to you — but the explorer’s. With a fascination for the mystery within the selves the dramatists out-spelled, you delved. And who could do that who did not have a wide soul, eager to meet the whatever and the why ever and the whoever that pollinate and people and perplex our planet still? The kind of magnanimity we would need to ascribe to a Jesus who found no one he could not call to, cry for, comfort.

“But it is time for me to be honest; I never had you in class, nor did I ever see you perform. I met you first and last at feasts — and Frank, now you be honest; your soul was created to party! Isaiah’s ‘choice beef and good wines’ are yours for the asking now (no need for the nuns to send kitchen extras home) and we will never raise a glass that will not carry in it your spirit. Only weeks before you left — for a better party, Isaiah suggests — you toasted with us. The spirits that exhilarated you were ours; you wanted our company and we wanted yours. It was to be with us that you togged and trod your way back to college; it was to keep the spirit alive that you were never a partisan man — a man of one party — but a man of many, and our roots are the richer for it. For how does the Spirit of Jesus insinuate itself into a human life save by the spirits enfleshed all over again, and sure signs of parties yet to come? And how is Jesus remembered to this day but by a meal of bread and wine?

“You always loomed larger than life, Frank, and now, in truth, you are; your good works follow you leaving behind a ‘cloud of glory’ even if it’s going in a direction Wordsworth didn’t picture. The souls of too many are seared with the singular splendor of your voice, your vision, and the venture you led us on.

“And, finally . . . ah, but excuse me, Frank appears to want the last word, and it shall be his, howsoever in the words of one Mark Twain: ‘I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, ’cause (you’re goin’ to) sivilize me soon, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.’

“See you, Frank!

“At the party, of course.”