My Dad Just Died. Quickly. Here’s What I Said At His Funeral.
(My dad, Eric Ruttan, died on Sunday, November 16th. He lived 2 months less two days after being diagnosed with aggressive cancers in several parts of his body. He was 64. His obituary can be accessed here.)
From Dad’s memorial service on November 21, 2014:
Before I share my thoughts I want to share with you the thoughts of my 3 children.
I asked them why they love Grandpa. And you should know that they all called my mom and dad “Grandpa and Grandma Nookshook” (because dad always wore an Inukshuk around his neck.)
Anna is one. Grandpa called her his “Buttons.” I asked her, “Anna, why do you love Grandpa?” With a big smile on her face she said “Bapa?” (Which is her word for Grandpa.) I asked her again, and again she said, “Bapa?” Apparently that was all I was going to get out of her. So I’ll answer on her behalf. I think she would say, “Because he snuggles me and plays peek-a-boo again and again and again.”
Benjamin is 3. Grandpa called him “Benji.” I asked him, “Why do you love Grandpa?” He said, “He takes me on 4-wheeler rides. We’re a 4-wheel team!” I feel I should also share his lunch time prayer the other day. I asked him if he wanted to say grace. He agreed, clasped his hands, and said, “Dear God, Thank you for our food. Thank you for our family. Thank you for grandpas and grandmas. Thank you for Grandma Nookshook. And thank you for Grandpa Nookshook, and for heaven, and that he’s not sick anymore. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”
Sarah is 5. Grandpa called her his Mittens. I asked her, “Why do you love Grandpa?” She said, “Because he was so nice, and he was caring.”
And here’s me.
Dad is gone. And there are things about his character I could talk about. If there was ever a proud humble person, my dad was it.
And he was far from perfect. But that’s what made him a good dad—and the right dad for me. Someone who knew the importance of being good, but who also knew that your worth was not tied to how good you were at being good. That’s what I needed. And I think that somewhere deep within him, he knew that too.
With these things in mind, on this side of the soil, I will never see his face again. But I remember the looks on his face. And I’d like to share some of them with you.
I remember the look on his face while dutifully tying my skates in the Bracebridge Arena before I was able to do it for myself. Or leaning over to grab a half-sleeping weary-eyed me in the back of the car at the end of a tournament, easily carrying me into the house and putting me in bed.
I remember the look on his face when he was playing the harmonica around the evening fire at Camp Kelmac.
I remember the look on his face, proudly saying “good show” after we had come out of a smoky Toronto music club, despite the fact that it was so loud it probably made his ears bleed.
I remember the look on his face, sitting out on the porch telling me how great my wife Laura was. And that if I ever did anything to mess that up I had something seriously wrong with me.
I remember the look on his face, the cool look of effortlessness, as he and my mom paddled into what I would consider a gale force wind on a lake somewhere. Whereas Laura and I were ready to give up, wishing we were back on the couch with a glass of wine, they cruised ahead like a well-oiled machine, wondering what us woosies were doing so far back behind.
I remember the look on his face, when during a painful period in my life I confided in him my struggles, and how a look of seriousness settled upon him, basically meaning that he was ready to jump up and beat the living heck out of whoever was causing me trouble.
I remember the look on his face when he told something funny. The way his mouth curled up, usually to one side. Smirkish. Recently on the way back from a radiation appointment they stopped in to a convenience store on the highway for him to pick up a pack of cigars; or, 6 packs of cigars actually—a habit he had recently resurrected after a long absence, because hey, why not. The cashier, who didn’t know him, said, “Those things will kill you, you know.” As he turned to go he quickly quipped: “Sooner than you think!”
I remember his face over the long haul, and give thanks for how he loved my mom, and the example that impressed upon me. Ups, downs, the in-betweens. How at the hospital here in town a month ago, and with his shirt off sitting on his walker (which he called “the Cadillac”) he told me she was the only woman he ever loved.
I remember the look of quiet pride in the eyes of a man who never used a lot of words. But who, after a big moment in my life, and when everyone else was gone from the party, came up, gave me a quick hug and whispered in my ear, “I’m proud of you.” Those are words that stick to the bones.
I remember the look on his face as he would complement me on one of my sermons, ask the odd question about Jesus, and say how he doesn’t know how any human could comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity.
I remember the look on his face when he came for a visit and saw the grandkids: “Where’s my hug?” His face came alive, just like the kids. He could relate to them with a childlike eagerness and simplicity.
I remember the look on his face when his heart broke. I really knew he was in pain and that something very serious was wrong, when mom and dad came to visit us in Nova Scotia this August—and our one-year-old Anna toddled over to him with open arms asking for “Bapa,” wanting to be picked up. And he couldn’t do it. If you want to know what someone’s face looks like when their heart actually breaks, that was it. When he could no longer bend over and pick up his little Anna.
I remember the look on his face when he did his best to explain to me his expanding faith, a look of both conviction and wonder. How, as he said, God had reached out to him, and how that powerful presence changed how he saw things.
I remember the look on his face the moment he died. It was the same moment he stopped having cancer.
But the look I think I will remember most, is the look of thankfulness. And he had it more and more.
Here’s what I mean:
Over the past 2 months I found myself saying to people “My dad has terminal cancer.” By that I meant his cancer was going to make him die. But as I think about it, we’re all terminal. We’re all going to die. And one of the greatest gifts that my dad gave us in his final days was the profound sense that every day WAS a gift. We are not entitled to it. We do not deserve it. It is a free gift—and we must do something with it.
Can you see that look of gratitude on his face? Despite the weight and burden of his sickness, his face got lighter, more bright. I know people say that each day is a gift. But dad meant it.
You really start to mean it when you kiss someone you love goodbye and aren’t really sure if it’s the last time you’ll see them.
You really start to mean it when you can no longer walk without help.
You really start to mean it when you see the winter’s first snowfall for the last time and exclaim in a whisper, “God, that’s beautiful.”
As dad was fond of saying, “Treat each day like it’s a new life—and live it like it is.”
That’s real thankfulness.
And seeing him in his final months of life, the face of thankfulness is a gift he gave to me (and I’m sure to many of you).
And so I am thankful.
I am thankful for 64 full years, when so many don’t get anywhere close to that.
I am thankful for his homemade wisdom—spoken not with fancy words, but with unpolished rough-around-the-edges realness.
I am thankful for the way he unswervingly loved my mom.
I am thankful for the abiding love he had for Sarah, Benjamin, Anna and Laura.
I am thankful that he stuck by me—surely when he understood me, and surely when he didn’t.
I am thankful for his enlarging faith.
I am thankful for all of you: the ways you have cared, and will care.
I am thankful that the approach of his death actually brought more life into the world, not less.
I am thankful that his sickness helped him become the person he was always meant to become at the end of his life.
And I am thankful for the many looks on his face—especially his final auras of thankfulness.
And I am thankful to God… For doing a good job with him, and for making him my dad.