Yesterday, July 26, 2019, I had the honour of giving the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral. I’d like to share it with you as a tribute to Dad.
(I make reference to the picture on the cover of the funeral bulletin; it is the picture to the left.)
When I began to think about what I wanted to say today, I struggled with how to come up with a framework. How could I go about summarizing a life well-lived to fit in the time-frame given? I thought about using a timeline, starting with Dad’s youth and moving through his life. I thought about framing it using Psalm 34. But I kept coming back to Dad’s last days and all that happened in such a short time. Those days and that hospital room were tangibly sacred. They held, together, the grief and sadness and loss but also the joy and celebration of a life well-lived.
Some of you know that Dad spent his last two and a half weeks in hospital. Some of you know that for the last five days of that time, his wife, all five of his children and his oldest granddaughter got to be there with him, as well as his only daughter-in-law. Only eight of us in this room know what happened in those days and hours, and I’d like to share some of it with you.
For five days, eight people other than Dad lived in his hospital room. (That in itself was a miracle!) We sat next to Dad, held his hand, read to him, prayed with him, slept in chairs, and talked. We talked to Dad and we talked to each other. We spent hours reminiscing together about this wonderful man we got to call husband, Dad, Grandad, and Great Grandad.
We talked about what Dad loved to do and the experiences he gave us as a family. Camping at Glen Rocks, canoe trips, the Petroffs cottage on Georgian Bay, picking fiddleheads, driving a school bus, hiking mountains, going for coffee at Tim Horton’s, building a fire in the fireplace, spending time with family. We talked about friends and things we had done with so many people through the years: cross country skiing, canoeing, camping, board games, backyard parties. Dad, and Mom, gave us a rich, full life. But he wasn’t just ours. Dad was on call 24/7 as a pastor.
We talked about his years of ministry. We traced the trail of churches from Ontario to New Brunswick to Quebec, back to Ontario, to Alberta. We talked about living situations (the projection room of an old theatre stands out). We talked about friends. And we talked about the impact Dad had on people. Dad never pastored a church of a thousand. He never wrote a best-seller. But boy, did he know how to love people! He rode in Mr. Boden’s bread truck to see what life was like for his friend. He helped Mr. Woods with milking and mucking. He sat in hospital rooms. He prayed for and with parishioners and strangers alike. He was willing to be the hands and feet of God. Dad personified God’s love for countless people during the course of his life: through his actions, many came to know what it means to experience God’s love. From a stranger on a plane to an old man in church every Sunday, from a single mom to a homeless man, Dad delighted in hearing the stories of his fellow humans, getting to know them, truly hearing them, loving them. True to form, in those last days, as we poured out our love for Dad, we were bathed in the immeasurable love of God.
As we talked about Dad and his ministry, we came to the conclusion that Dad always put his relationship with God first, and people a close second. If ever his theology collided with his experience of walking with people, his love led him to a new theology, a new and deeper understanding of God’s love for all. And he often didn’t have to go further than his family to practice! Dad loved his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren through many things that challenged his beliefs and he always chose us over long-held beliefs or dogmas, just as he always chose you. This was another significant way that Dad not only demonstrated love, but led others into loving. Being willing to learn and grow is a marvelous thing to observe, and is an impetus to do the same.
Mom and Dad always have practiced hospitality, not just inviting people into their home, but a deep-seated hospitality of the heart, where people have always been welcome. In the last months of Dad’s life, at a time when many others would conserve energy and resources by keeping themselves to themselves, Mom and Dad still had people into their home, still reached out to touch people. Dad would tire easily, and when guests were over for an evening, he would often have to go to bed early, despite wanting to stay at the party. But he didn’t want anyone to leave on that account. He said that lying in bed listening to his family and friends talk and laugh was like a tonic to him; it made him happy. Those last days in his hospital room were filled with talking and laughter (tears as well, to be honest) as our gift to Dad. But they were a gift to us as well.
He lay there, surrounded by his people who talked and laughed and cried our way through the beginnings of saying good-bye. He heard our voices, felt our touch, saw our faces. Most of all, he felt our love. We had the opportunity to tell him, so often, how much he was loved. We had the opportunity to demonstrate our love by caring for him. But we also had the opportunity to show him our growing, evolving love and care for each other. Dad’s last gift to us was five days together, living in one small hospital room. We told stories we’ve never told each other, we were vulnerable and open in new ways; we loved each other through an intense, difficult experience. And we will never be the same, either as individuals, or as a group. We have shared sacred space and time and we have been blessed by it.
I wonder if you noticed the picture on the front of the bulletin. It was chosen because we all, independently, thought of it as our favourite picture of Dad. He is outdoors in the woods, which he loved; he was on a walk with family, whom he loved; a bird is sitting on his fingers, much to his obvious delight; and the picture was taken by Vanessa, his oldest beloved grandchild. In this case, a picture speaks not just a thousand words, but a lifetime.
So, when you think of Dad, think of him like this: surrounded by God’s creation, hand extended in gentleness to a tiny creature, delighted, captured through the eyes of love. A beloved son of Creator God who extended love indiscriminately, delighted in even the smallest gift, and led others to love.
Before I go, I’d like to leave you with one last, very important thing.
I take great comfort and solace in knowing that Dad is present with God in a new way. I imagine him meeting Jesus, meeting his son, Judson, meeting my daughter, Elisabeth. I imagine him full of joy, experiencing God’s love so fully, so comprehensively. I am sure beyond doubt that Dad is present with the God whom he loved and loves, but not because Dad was a good man, or that he did something extraordinary to step into a privileged inner circle of God’s chosen. I am sure of where Dad is because God loved him first. This is the great good news for all of us: it’s not up to us! God loves, God pursues, God forgives, God includes. What I know to be true for Dad, I know to be true for each of you as well: YOU are loved by God as fully, as unfathomably, as intensely as Dad is. It doesn’t matter if you’re “good” or “righteous.” God doesn’t need you to be anything other than who you are. God loved and loves Dad exactly as he was and is, and God loves you exactly as you are. I am excited to think of Dad experiencing God’s love in a whole new way, and as I look at all of you, I am excited for you to know it too.
We Love You, Dad – Heather Holtslander