Most recently, my father passed away 10 days before Christmas and I spent the first ever Jan. 4 wishing happy birthday to a deceased parent. I've known his early death was inevitable for the past 20 years, and I've known it was even more so in the last 2 years since he slipped and fell and never really recovered from it. The Huntington's disease really took its toll on Dad, until all he could really do was grunt and smile. But at least he was still smiling.
I was so happy to see so much family at the funeral in Cincinnati, and to see some unexpected friends as well. Being an atheist, it was odd to take part in a church service to help everyone else mourn, and not only to be present there, but to participate. Things not to think about when you're carrying your father's urn down the aisle of a church: Damn, this is heavier than I thought. Don't drop it. Don't trip up the stairs to the alter. You'll never get to walk down another aisle with Dad again. Everyone is watching you. Some of these people probably haven't seen you since you hit puberty. They probably wonder who you are. You are a fraud. You shouldn't be here in this place with these priests and those alter girls leading you up this aisle. Dad isn't in heaven. Or hell. He just isn't anymore. He's in this bronze jar, in your hands.
That was probably the hardest thing I've done in life. Recognize the weight of my father's ashes and his absence at a moment of spectacle that I really didn't want to be a part of. But I did it for my family. Performed my mourning when all I really wanted was to curl up in a ball and cry. And my Uncle Den, who has been the one to take care of all the nasty things that need taking care of (money, paperwork, funeral arrangements), he performed as he has too many times before, for father Richard, mother Anna, and brother Rick before this time, with humor and tears:
Thoughts on Tim
December 29, 2011
First of all, I want to thank all of you for being here today to celebrate Tim’s life. Certainly, those of us who loved him will miss him dearly, but the way Tim lived is deserving of celebration.
I know that I cannot do justice to what Tim’s life meant. But hopefully with a few comments and stories I can remind those of us that knew him why we loved him, and with those same comments and stories introduce Tim to those of you who did not know him.
The first impression everyone had of Tim was, “What a nice guy!” As you got to know him, you realized he wasn’t just being polite. He actually was that nice guy—a genuinely pleasant man you wanted to be around.
In the interest of a truthful story, however, I need to admit that eventually you did find out Tim wasn’t a soft, push over kind of a guy because he did inherit equal parts of Dad’s Irish temper and Mom’s German righteousness. If he disagreed with you, he would let you know.
When I would take him to the St. X basketball games, I would set him up in his own chair at the front of the bleachers on the stage. He needed the chair because his back could no longer deal with sitting on those bleachers. It wouldn’t take long for that Irish temper and German righteousness to show itself when he expressed his opinions about the officials’ calls—those around him knew he was there.
You didn’t have to be with Tim long to hear him express his pride in his daughters. Whenever I would take him to the many appointments he had, the small talk from nurses and others would eventually include questions about his family. Immediately he would comment on his two daughters, Alysa and Amy. He took pride in the college educations of both. Tim would be sure to describe both Alysa’s family and her independence as well as Amy’s professional skills and advancement. His comments were obviously brimming with pride.
When the grandchildren came along he loved to talk about them. He enjoyed being the grandfather, and his collection of grandchildren pictures in his condo showed that pride.
Tim lived independently for a long time. Those of you familiar with the hazards of Huntington’s disease realize how much of an accomplishment that can be. He valued that independence tremendously. Being the worry wart that I am, I asked him at one point, “Tim, will you tell me when you can’t do this by yourself.” Tim was honest with me about most things, but sadly on this topic he held back. The results of his holding back were not good.
Tim loved golf. During his healthy years he became a very good golfer. Certainly one of the things Tim liked most about living in Hilton Head for the years he lived there was that he could play golf practically year round. I remember on a visit there driving him to “his golf course.” Everyone there knew him and greeted him as the regular he was, “Hello, Mr. Martin, glad to see you here today.” After he moved back to Cincinnati, I would take him golfing. By this time the effects of the HD were obvious. His gait was unsure and his balance was suspect. On the tee area he would bend over to place the ball on the tee and you would want to grab hold of him because you knew he couldn’t possibly keep himself upright. But somehow he would get the ball on the tee. Then he would address the ball, and you still couldn’t believe he could possibly stand still long enough to hit the ball. But somewhere on that backswing I swear an angel breathed stillness into that shaking body and the ball would take flight as if all was right with the world. Then he would stagger back to the golf cart, and I would secretly wonder at what he had just done. When my schedule didn’t allow me to go with him, I would drop him off at Miami Whitewater Golf Course before I went to work. He would spend all day at the golf course, and then I would pick him up later on my way home. I think, being on a golf course was Tim’s preview of heaven. Eventually though, the swing would leave him, as it must, and he quietly stopped asking to go golfing.
Tim also liked to fish. For twenty years a group of us, family and friends, made a trip to Lake Erie to go walleye fishing. More than once Tim would win the prize for the biggest fish. But one of my memories of Tim on Lake Erie involved Tim and sunscreen. Tim was very fair skinned and would sunburn easily. One year, as big brother, I warned him he better put on that sunscreen because he was turning red. His Irish came up and he told me he didn’t need his mother taking care of him. Well, as things would go on that same trip Tim became sea sick from the rocking of the boat. Within minutes his red complexion turned green. I told him he had cured his sunburn even though he had to hang his head over the side of the boat. He didn’t see the humor at the time.
Tim was the main character in the all-time funniest home video never recorded. This story involved a softball game. A bunch of family put together a softball team to play in a small weekend tournament, and we needed Tim to play. He would be the tenth player. Tim was a very good softball outfielder with a rifle of an arm. By this time though he was past his prime, and he was told by his family, “Tim, you can’t play. You will get hurt.” Well, the competitive male pride took over and Tim said, “Don’t worry. Nothing is going to happen. I’m going to play.”
You guessed it; you know exactly what happened. Playing the outfield, Tim pulled a hamstring and couldn’t run. We had no subs, so we convinced Tim he could trade places with the catcher. We told him, “Catchers never run. There’s nothing to do. You will be fine.” Again, you guessed it. At a crucial time there was a play at the plate with a throw coming from the outfield to Tim. Tim, standing stiff and straight because he couldn’t bend his leg, stepped out on the plate to catch the ball as the base runner approached from third. The throw from the outfield was a one bounce throw to Tim. The ball bounced at just the wrong angle and bounced up to hit Tim in a place that we really shouldn’t name here in church. When the ball hit Tim, he let out a loud “oomph” and doubled up forward just a split second before the runner slammed directly into him causing Tim to let out another loud “oomph,” followed by Tim rolling over backwards in a somersault and ending up on his seat leaning up against the back stop. The rest of us watching all of this used all of our self-control to stifle our reaction.
Let me end by highlighting the most important aspect of Tim’s life—his courage. When a person is told of his diagnosis of Huntington’s disease, he knows what he is facing. There is not going to be a happy ending. Tim knew the future. He knew there was no stopping the inevitable decline in his physical abilities and the unstoppable degeneration of his mental faculties. He did his part for HD by signing up for the local HD research studies. But more importantly than that, he told me that he saw Dad become angry and mean as Dad spiraled downward with his HD, but he would not do that. He said to me as long as I have a choice to be nice to people and a choice to be happy I am going to do that. And even though Tim had his bad moments when that Irish and German temperament came out, but he held true to that promise to the end. He smiled at his nurses when a smile was about the only movement he could muster. His example of dealing with the tough hand he was dealt is an inspiration to me and a life’s lesson we can all take with us as we leave this celebration of his life.
Tim is now in a place where all of his drives are in the fairway, and all of his approach shots roll to the cup, and all of his putts fall no matter the contour of the green.
Look at the back of the program. Look at those smiles. That is the Tim we celebrate today.