Tagged: Mourning

Restoring the Statue

The last five years have turned me into the seasoned mourner I never wanted to be, but always knew I was destined to become. Even as a young man, I knew I’d have to face losing a lot of important people in my life. Among my massive Catholic family, I’m the youngest child of the youngest of nine siblings on my paternal side and not far off on the other side. I could still leave the planet early, of course, but if I’m on anything like a standard timeline, I will experience a lot of loss from family alone, to say nothing of my voluminous list of dear friends.

As I hear of a good friend losing his mother, the concern and grief I feel at his loss triggers a dull sting reminding me that I’ve more to do to mourn my own mother, who passed away just a couple of months into the pandemic last year. This was all easier with my father, who we lost three years back. I’ve found myriad ways to honor him, from travel to reading to watching his favorite films. Sorting out similar methods for my mother has been much more challenging.

Yet, I’ve found a meaningful way to make it work. The books and such are fine, but the most profound part of my mourning process has been to embrace the best traits my parents had to offer. They were far from perfect, as am I, but there’s much to admire, too, and not all of it is currently housed properly in my own brain and/or heart.

With my mother, I’m trying to embrace her sense of generosity as my own. She was a devoted mother who would do anything for her children, to the point that we relied on her too much. She loved us so deeply that she could not judge where to stop. This clouded her view of us in the kindest way possible, as she could see little wrong with her children and nothing even slightly askew with her grandchildren. She was a giver and I know this well as one of the big takers in her life. I’ve always tempered this inclination to follow her ways in my own parenting, trying to focus on opportunities to encourage self-reliance and build confidence. Now, however, I want to be more like her. I want to just support those around me without so much precision. I want to be more the one who rushes to help without thinking about whether I’m ‘teaching a person to fish instead of giving them a fish.’ My mom handed out the fish all the time, no questions asked. You even got a hug with it.

A Task Never Accomplished

As I pondered this intangible quest last weekend, I noticed my wife watering plants in our back garden, stepping among the small bits of statuary we inherited from my mother. A peculiar one amongst the collection was an ersatz Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This is generous to the stubby little thing because it was made by some knockoff company and, although there was fidelity in the facial features, the clothes were red and blue for some reason. This Disney expert knows that’s just not right.

My mother housed this goofy little item in her yard, dragging his heavier-than-you-would-think body from her house to a townhome, to a mobile home in a retirement community and then to our place when she came to live with us. This helped our home be hers during the year she was with us. Internal space was tight, so we couldn’t retain all of her furniture, but we kept her garden decor and plants she’d put into ceramic pots so they could move with her. My wife endeavored to keep the plants alive, but the loving care she provided my mother was the real gift she gave us both. Alas, my mother’s nature inspired me to marry a woman of uncommon kindness. She was repaid mightily by my wife, who managed her medicine, cooked and cared for her with love, as she would her own mother.

Ersatz Dopey: What a faker.

During that year with my mom, I’d often sit in the garden and sometimes joke with her, suggesting the ‘real’ Dopey would be offended by this impostor. “I know,” she’d say, “He’s a big faker.” While teasing the innocent statue amused us both, I’d often said she should paint him the right colors. She’d agree and recall how she used to paint. She didn’t produce much but I recall a gorgeous painting of an atoll at dusk, with rich eggplant-colored water and lavender shadows dominating the serenity of the scene. Her work was always a pleasant reminder of my mother’s artistic side, which mostly came out in the course of necessity. Challenged with a child (even an adult child) in need of a Halloween costume, she would find the materials and get them together with impressive results. She turned my wife and myself into a credible March Hare and Mad Hatter one year. My sister’s Queen of Hearts costume was also exceptional and made on the rattiest of shoestring budgets. Halloween was always a fun time for our family. This tradition preceded our generation; my family always had Halloween parties and, in fact, my parents first met at a Halloween party. The story is they were an item almost immediately. I’m thrilled to have a picture of that glorious night preserved in an album.

Ritual Restoration

Alas, my mother never broke out the paints as she planned so many times. Poor Fake Dopey remained in his unattractive blue and red garments. So, when the clouds of early spring parted a few days before Easter, I mentioned this to my wife. She kindly took up a paintbrush the next day. With her sure hand, she cleaned up the figure, corrected his wardrobe and put him back out to work – newly refurbished and ready to guard the garden against whatever incursion might threaten the kumquat and mango trees my wife planted (knowing my affinity for those fruits) or the white flowers of jasmine spread across our fence.

Dopey

Only when a friend came by for a physically-distanced visit last week did I make the connection. He saw the newly-painted Dopey and asked where it came from. I reminded him of the knockoff and he recalled it. I noted that my mother had wanted this statue to be painted and, though she wasn’t here any longer, I experienced a powerful satisfaction at his refurbishment. This act would have made her happy and a reflection of that imagined joy on my own soul was palpable. I hesitate to say reflection only because the elation was a more potent blend than that word conveys. This was the same multi-flavored emotion I felt when I traveled to England to spread my father’s and uncle’s ashes in a place significant to them. I was overwhelmed by an emotion of my own layered on top of what I know my loved ones would experience.

I’ll add one more dimension: my mother would want me to be happy when I thought of her, so I’m also fulfilling that wish. It’s like a sense of loving accomplishment boomeranging back and forth to infinity. This lifted the shackles of loss and beat back the grief, turning the tears into a quiet rain of pure love. I enjoyed those salubrious drops hanging around the edges of my eyes, comforting me as my mother always would. The impression of her head against my chest (she was only 5’1″ to my 6′) appeared like a phantom hug. I’ve been feeling that all week as I considered my experience; somehow, it’s new and wonderful every time.

Mom and Eric
Mom and me early last year.

Sweetness Follows

One of life’s counterintuitive and also most profoundly sweet lessons is that making others happy is actually more compelling than making yourself happy. Applying this notion to the memory of someone you’ve loved and lost – well, I find it a rare and wonderful concoction. To be sure, it is an acquired taste that you obtain through the mourning process. I definitely didn’t have it in the early days, when even pleasant memories and thoughts were too raw.

Yet, these rituals help along the journey, whether they’re tiny like this restoration or larger like my donations to causes important to my mom on her birthday and for Christmas. They build up the interest and appetite for these more complex emotions that manifest from the loss of a loved one. Every time I find another way to honor my mother, the experience is less bitter and somewhat sweeter. Accepting that these emotions will always be a melange has helped immensely, especially as I strive to embrace the best of my parents so I can keep them alive in my thoughts and actions.

Loss in the Time of Corona

Much of the board game community was gripped in grief this week at the loss of a gamer who so many of us truly adored, James Miller. If you didn’t know James, suffice it to say that if you did, you would have loved him, too. He was kindness personified, someone who took an interest in everyone he met, an ace game explainer and a funny yet sweet presence at every game table. I don’t want to say he was a prince; he was what we want in a prince.

James in blue during an epic game of Time’s Up while in Essen (2009, Stephanie Bennett)

As the tributes poured in on social media, some with happy pictures (James had a smile that conveyed pure joy every single time) and heartfelt memories shared (especially about his exceptional Time’s Up skills), and others succinct enough to follow Twitter’s original character limit, they all were strongly expressed and it was obvious that the network of James’ friends extended across the world. We all felt the loss in a very real sense even if we only saw James at game cons (as was the case for me). Yes, this was because James was one of those friends one appreciates so much. But the number of people who added that this was just another thing tearing at the soul during this challenging time in our world was enormous. I felt it myself. Could 2020 stop taking everything from us? How are we to cope?

A Period of Grief

I have been through a lot of grief in the last few years, including the passing of my father, an uncle who was like a second dad, two other close uncles, a close aunt, a young adult who I watched grow up, and even my mother just two and half months back. That isn’t even mentioning some other gamer friends who also left us too soon. It’s been a very tough few years.

In 2018, I felt the same way most of us are feeling about 2020. Early that year, my father passed and literally the Monday after the funeral, I found out about this young person passing who I cared about and who my children looked up to as an older brother. After this, every other bad thing that happened, from my mother’s dementia accelerating to my basset hound passing to even a favorite author dying, made it feel like the year itself was getting crueler. Work became untenable, with some people at my organization doing completely insane things. I could feel myself losing touch with the things that brought me joy.

Thankfully, I had a plan in place to travel to the UK at that point to spend time with my sister and brother-in-law, who live there most of the time. The trip was about memorializing my father properly and we did so by traveling to Ulverston, the birthplace of Stan Laurel. In addition to staying at the Stan Laurel Inn (a charming tavern), we spread his and my uncle’s ashes in the river there (yes, we had a Lebowski moment), and spent time at the Laurel and Hardy museum that occupies an old movie house in town. While there, we talked to the museum owner and other attendees about my father and my uncle, their great love of the duo, how they had met Stan Laurel when they were young, and how our trip was to honor their memories.

My sister Isabel and me with the Boys in Ulverston.

Yes, the trip was for my Dad but also for my Uncle Bill. Just six months before my father’s passing, my uncle had died and perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to tell my Dad that his brother, his practical twin, had passed. While his cognitive abilities were impaired by a stroke a dozen years before, he’d gotten quite good at controlling his emotions. But this broke us both down. I hugged him and we both cried so much; I recall thinking that our tears must have gotten mixed up. I told these stories to my sister while I was visiting her third-floor flat and we spent a lot of time crying but also a lot of time telling happy stories about our wonderful dad and our cool, witty uncle.

A Process of Mourning

At the York Minster

While I cannot discount the healing value of having spent the week after our trip to Ulverston walking through the towns of Northern England (even a trip to Liverpool – home to both The Beatles and my family) with my beloved sister Isabel, it was that storytelling and those shared memories that helped me with the mourning process. Someone smarter than me clarified in a book I read that grief is something we experience but mourning is a process you go through and actively work to complete.

I realized I was getting to the end of my process of mourning when I was on the plane back to the US. I could feel my father firmly placed on one shoulder and my uncle on the other, ready for me to call upon their wisdom when I needed it. My father is where I got my passionate loyalty, my sense of right and wrong, and the toughness to take things on when I needed to do so. My uncle is where I got my intellectual curiosity and love of learning, along with my gregarious nature, and sense of wonder for the future. They were still with me through my memories and when I passed them on to others, I could keep them alive.

A Commitment to Heal and Endure

When I returned to the States, I had lunch with my friend and colleague Dr. Galen Buckwalter at our favorite sushi spot. Galen is one of the world’s leading psychometricians and a man of profound understanding that I’m honored to still work with on my new project, NEON ID. When he heard about my travels and their healing quality, he noted that this is why we have ritual. We honor those we lose and invest the time in mourning to help us process what they meant to us so we can continue to live. Those memories and those stories we tell keep them alive for all of us who remain. Yes, sometimes tears accompany those moments but this process is what helps us find the strength to endure. I don’t use memories as a wall to block out grief; I use them as a filter to transform those sad moments into learning and gratitude for the time we had with them.

This glorious yet simple message was written on the wall in my path to get to the beach the last day I was on holiday last month. It was precisely what I needed.

If I had not gone through 2018 and found a way to cope, I don’t think I could have handled 2020 at all. While I have not completed my mourning process for my mother, I have begun it. I took a smaller trip for my birthday last month and spent time reflecting on her loss while sitting on a beach with my feet in the sand and my eyes resting on the waves. This was a strong start to the process but I know it will continue. She’s begun to manifest next to my father on my shoulder, the gentlest of reminders about what she taught me regarding unconditional love. For now, I remain her student and will keep at it until I’ve processed in what I have to learn from her life. I’m drawing strength against despair from her each and every day.

And this weekend, I will be honoring James by getting my family to play his game Control Nut. I am so happy that I acquired a copy some years ago. I will admit that I bought it before playing the game. I snapped it up because of James, because he was someone I liked so much that I wanted his game on my shelf. I happen to also like the game and I’m happy for the excuse to get it back to the table.

In the future, I will remember him and my happy memories of time playing games or just shooting the breeze with him when I play it. Heck, I will remember him every time I do a solid job of explaining a game since I know I picked up some of my skills from him over the years. I can take those learnings from him and, I hope, maybe I can even learn to be a kinder person from hearing how he positively affected the lives of so many gamers across the world. He lived life well and the huge impact is strongly felt across our community. How much more can be asked of any of us?

Control Nut is good, trick-takey fun!

This will be part of my way of processing this loss even in this horrible moment in history. We must go on, we must cope, we must right the ship and we must thrive. All of those who passed who loved us would want that and it’s our duty to keep honoring their lives by doing so. I will get to work with it and I hope you will, too.

Reading List

I always turn to books when I need help and this was no exception. Here are some books on this process that have helped me in recent days:

It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay by Megan Devine – Recommended to me by Galen’s wife, Dr. Deborah Buckwalter. More focused on the loss of a spouse/partner but still very useful

Can We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast – Recommended by Andy Looney. Focused on coping with older parents and care-taking.

The Orphaned Adult by Alexander Levy – Read about it online. More religion than I needed, but still a good book for coping with the loss of parents in particular.

This year, due to COVID-19, was the first Mother’s Day in my life that I did not spend with my loving mother, Lydia. It now seems prescient to what would befall our family yesterday, in that we lost her to natural causes in the depth of the afternoon.

She did like her wine!

My mother was a lovely, beautiful woman, but only 5’1” and three-quarters tall (she’d bristle if I failed to mention the three-quarters). Yes, although I top out at 6 feet, my mother was quite tiny but she packed a lot of life and love into that diminutive frame. In her eighty-one years, my mother endured a lot. While her childhood and earlier years included more than her share of loss and pain, things changed when she met and married my father in her early twenties. I enjoyed recently hearing a cousin of mine say it was like a fairy tale wedding, my dad coming in as a prince to marry my princess of a mother so they could begin their happily ever after. Their love affair would last over fifty years, produce three children and four grandchildren. I go there quickly because that’s what made my mother happiest: Family.

My parents when they were dating.

Everything my mother did was about her family. She was the mother who put everyone in her life ahead of herself, the mom who would happily trade a meal with you at a restaurant if you didn’t like yours. She would watch the film you wanted to see, she’d go to the store you wanted to visit, and even play the board game you picked out. And she went above and beyond just your health and immediate happiness. In Disney terms, I’d call it “plussing it up.’ She didn’t stop at what you needed, she’d do more to make sure you were happy and felt she cared. I still recall one day when I was extremely ill as a child, how she left work early to come home and spend more time with me. Yes, she brought the medicine to make sure I felt better. Yet, she also stopped at the Clarks Drugs counter and bought me an Atari cartridge so that when I felt better, I had this little ‘feel even better’ gift to enjoy. That’s a tradition with us now, we all tend to give little feel-better gifts when someone is really not well (my sister just sent one to my daughter). That was my mom’s way and it counts, that stays with you – notably, I can tell you that the game was Laser Blast (she had called and made sure it was one I wanted) because I still feel good from her generosity that day, almost forty years ago.

My mom and dad were so cool, they loved Star Wars.

When I was older and learned of the difficult life my mom endured as a child, I was flummoxed. How did she live through that trauma and still turn into the most generous, kind, and wonderful mother? She simply took pain and transformed it into love; it became a desire to protect and to care for her children deeply. She was always was ready to help. She really didn’t want much for herself but she delighted in giving and helping. Not that she was entirely opposed to receiving something. If you had a yummy dessert on your plate at a restaurant, she would collect her ‘taste’. From when I was very young, I recall she’d tell us that if she didn’t get a little bite of whatever you had, she’d ‘get a bump on her tongue.’ I can recall getting to an age where I saw through the emotional appeal. I demanded to see the bump, to which she’d say that it’d only manifest if I were to be so ungenerous as to NOT give her a bite. I always did. All that time, I never saw a bump. She could be pretty persuasive.

My mom was also a fibber. I will use that term instead of ‘liar’ because all of her falsehoods were of the ‘white lie’ variety. She would often tell a fanciful version of things to avoid hurting people’s feelings. But she’d also dial them up to get herself out of trouble. As she got older, it was easier to catch her in these little fibs. When she’d say she took her pills to avoid getting hassled for forgetting. We’d catch her and she’d laugh at her deception and demand to know who told on her. She’d get away with it every time. She’d earned it.

Big drinker? Not really, but she was always ready for take a silly photo.

She also had a sneaky sense of humor. While she was quite proper for the most part, I recall her laughing loudly (her mirth was high-pitched and catching) at some pretty raunchy jokes when we went to see Chasing Amy in the theater. My own fault for taking my parents to a Kevin Smith film. She also happily participated in practical jokes. My dad told traditional jokes, which I’ve never done. But I definitely got my tendency to deliver deadpan ludicrous details to prank people from my mom.

Both of my parents taught me compassion. While my father spoke about it intellectually and did what he could in his noble work, my mother was a passionate debater that would get into it with someone as he rarely would. While she wasn’t a deeply churchy person, her Catholic ideals of protecting the meek and poor never faded for a moment. She hated bullies, she railed against the obscenely rich who exploited the weak, and she expressed tolerance for everyone. I can recall trying to pull her away from arguments with family who found a way to believe otherwise, but she didn’t go away quietly. In this kind-hearted woman, this is where she got fierce. She was a person of enormous compassion for the common person. I will always love and respect her for that; it was an extension of how she protected her family and loved people.

At The Magic Castle in LA. My mom wanted to go anywhere, do anything.

If my mom’s generosity as a mother was huge, it was truly epic as a grandmother. Her grandchildren could basically do no wrong. Her kids – sure, we were an imperfect bunch but she loved and defended us anyway. But the grandkids? They were her perfect angels and no amount of reality could get in the way of that. Did a grandchild break something? Her fault for leaving it on such a high shelf. Did they misbehave? She’d clearly failed to address all their pent-up energy. Did they do something that their parents directly said not to do? Well, clearly her child failed to make rules that worked well for her grandchild. As a parent of half of those kids, I can tell you that this could be very irritating! Grandma was something of an enabler and when I’d determine a punishment suitable to a crime, she’d openly defy and discount the judgment. Definitely not helpful for young parents, but I knew it came from her indomitable love of her grandchildren. For my kids, she would host sleepovers and they loved to go. She’d make those nights so special for them, with treats and games. I recall her telling me how much she loved them being over. She told me once that they both crawled into bed and snuggled with her, one on each side and how that, for her, was “heaven.” She would do anything for her grandkids. In all cases, she was the primary or only grandma, the one who was closer (physically and emotionally) and participated the most. I bet they’d all say that she more than made up for lacking a partner, so ample was her attention and her care for them. I’ve learned ‘grandparenting’ well from her example, and my children will just have to deal with it. I fully intend to be the exact same way.

Some of my fondest memories of my mom are from the trips we took. As a youth, we didn’t take too many vacations, although I got to do a special one with my mom and dad back to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic when I was sixteen. I was old enough to truly enjoy the time with my parents as an almost-adult and we had so many good discussions. Better yet were the many times my parents and especially my mom came with my family on vacation. When my son was a baby and my daughter was still on the way, we planned a trip to Walt Disney World. My dad wasn’t all that into it, but my mom loved every minute. And she carried my son EVERYWHERE. She knew my wife was already ‘carrying’ a baby, so she took care of my son. I kept offering to take him after we’d walked all day across the massive theme parks, but she would never give him up. To her, carrying a grandchild did not add encumbrance. She joined us many times on so many trips, with and without my dad, when we went down to Paradise Point, our favorite getaway in San Diego. She was always there to spend time with her grandkids, to let my wife and me have some quiet time together, and to be part of our joy. I’m also so grateful that we got to take her and my dad on their final big trip, a return to Hawaii and the islands we visited as a family when I was just eight years old. We stayed close to where we had before on Kawaii and revisited many of the locations, now with my wife and children in tow. As always, my mom was the MVP, helping wrangle the kids, watching them so Christina and I could get a break, and making any and every sacrifice to ensure others had the best time (those famous food-swaps, or indulging the kids with souvenirs and treats) and just being a listener at any moment, and a companion to share in the wonder and the joy. My kids’ grandma could out-grandma just about any other grandma, I can tell you.

In Kauai, with my children.

Many say you look to your parents for the qualities you seek in a spouse. I was quite conscious of that when I asked my wife Christina to marry me. She has my mother’s care, compassion, and generosity. My mother knew this from the beginning and embraced my wonderful wife immediately, treating her as just another one of her children, similarly loved and defended. I can recall complaining to my mom about marital challenges at times. She’d listen but didn’t ‘take my side’ because she wouldn’t speak ill of her daughter-in-law. She was just another one of her children and I love my mom all the more for that. We lost my mother-in-law twenty-one years ago, and my wife has spoken of how my mother did what she could to fill that gap. She took so much care of our kids and helped us so much. My parents moved close to us when our kids were born so they could be those grandparents that are always around. And it’s no surprise that my wife took amazing care of my mom, too, also out of pure love.

My dad’s stroke some fifteen years ago changed all of our lives, but hers the most next only to him. The lifelong caregiver had to go into overdrive and she was more than equal to the task. She spent over a decade caring for him night and day, making adjustments, doing everything she needed to do to care for her precious husband. Her strength through this was amazing, even as she faced these struggles without my father’s endless optimism. It was tough, but she took such good care of him as they grew older and needed more care, moving from their townhome to a mobile home and eventually to my home (with my dad across the street in a board-and-care facility).

After my father passed away in early 2018, my mother was never the same. While she’d been touched with dementia in the year leading up to his death, the illness grew – often in aggressive spurts. She moved from our home to assisted living and then memory care. Although she had bouts of anxiety and difficulty at times, she remained thrilled to see me when I would visit her each week. We’d go out for breakfast even though she’d have already eaten. She’d delight in a second breakfast with me (I’ll refrain from the hobbit joke based on her size – oops!) and ask about the kids. Sometimes, she’d need to repeat that question rather a lot because her memory was fading, but that was always top of mind. Yes, there were anti-Trump diatribes (of course she hated him, he’s everything she despised), but mostly it was her seizing on and enjoying the details of how my children and my niece and nephew were carrying on. Each small detail was greeted with pure joy; her ambrosia was knowing the family was thriving. I really believe that the isolation from all of us had an impact on her. Yet, she’d have had it no other way. She’s want people to be safe and to be practicing physical distancing, even as it kept her from hugging her children and grandchildren for a couple of months. I cherish that last visit Alaric and I made just before the lockdown. Even as she wasn’t expressive in words, she closed her eyes with joy as she hugged her grandson and then me, knowing she had done well by the world and by her much-loved family.

Wedding Picture

As I kissed her head a final time, I was taken by how much she still looked like my mom despite the tubes, the state of her health, and the wear of decades. Throughout my life, she never looked different; she remained her same beautiful self from when I was young – perhaps even, back to the image of her wedding picture a decade before I was born – that shining princess smiling as if she knew, already and for sure, how much happiness she’d experience and create in her life. It wasn’t the hair dye. I looked at her that final time as I always did, with the love she showed me how to experience – the power to soften wrinkles, cloud patches of gray, and obfuscate whatever else had changed. I still saw my mom full of a desire for her family to be healthy, happy, and safe. Before I sat vigil next to her in the final minutes, my sister whispered to her that she didn’t have to take care of us any longer – we were ready to care for one another. I also said what I could to comfort her; I told her that all was well, that her family loved her and that it was time to be at peace. The words strung together and ended up in a kind of chant to ensure that her last thoughts would be free of the worry we both would tend to feel. I hope she trusted me about it. I believe she did.

Our last picture together, March 2020

Since my father passed away in early 2018, I feel his presence in my daily decision to greet the world with optimism. My mom is now by his side, reminding me to love before I judge and to work at converting the sense of suspicion we shared into a careful wisdom. That’s how I believe it will play out, although it’s still quite fresh in my head and my heart. Right now, it feels like her telling me to simply add love in heaping spoonfuls to every recipe for living life. It worked for her and I can hear her calming, sweet voice telling me that it should work for me as well.

For those who would like to donate in her memory, we have a funding page for the American Heart Association: https://bit.ly/lydiamemorial. Thank you for reading about our mom.

Good Men: A tribute to my father, Robert Leo Burgess

2018 got off to a rough start for me, as I spent a lot of January with family concerns. My father’s health failed and my mother is also dealing with issues. At the end of the month, I lost my father to long illness and I wrote this note about him on Facebook. I heard from a few people that they had shared it because my note on Facebook about the wonderful father I was honored to have seems like it inspired some good discussions and consideration about what it means to be a father. I’ve slightly edited it to remove some personal points that are not as relevant to the casual reader, but kept what I think was the heart of the piece.


January 30, 2018 – Late Sunday night, as I was watching a Netflix film about funny people and trying not to think about what was imminent, my father passed away after a brief time in hospice.

I have been uncharacteristically silent on social media because I am still processing the loss, which I can only do with words. There was further delay from a paper cut on my right index finger that I gained while filling out the paperwork to release his body for cremation just moments after I arrived at the hospice. I was first to arrive, had driven over in a haze and, at that moment, appreciated the sharp pain of the cut popping my consciousness back into place before I went in to see my dad one last time.

As I sit here in the dark of morning a day later, I am thinking one could say that my father was not a great man. Great men change the whole world in some way. Maybe it’s how business runs in a particular space, how we think about something important or even how we view change and evolution in a broader sense. What I do know about great men, as I’ve known a few, is that they make sacrifices for their greatness and for whatever cause that matters more than anything to them.

That wasn’t my dad. He was a good man.

Good men attend to everything across their lives at some level from acceptably to amazingly. They love their families, they work hard to get educated and then at a job to make sure, as they say, the ends meet. They are far from perfect but their desire to make sure everything across life happens well enough is admirable because they don’t believe in kids getting ignored for a job or constantly needing to be off in their man cave or out with buddies to pretend they don’t have family obligations in real life. Good men make room in their lives for their spouse and their children; the best of them give their family an outsized space.

The good men find balance. They shift gears when the family is formed. They might even seem a bit boring, at times. But, good and boring pays the bills. Good and boring shows up to their children’s recital. And good and boring leaves a legacy of loving memories and kids who adore them.

And, if you knew him at all, how could you not adore my dad? If you found a way, well, too bad for you. The rest of us were crazy about him.

Robert Leo Burgess was born on December 7, 1933, a while before that date was Pearl Harbor Day. The youngest of nine kids, he was shorter than all of the men in the family, which he often attributed to there ‘being nothing left’ when he finally came around. As the baby of the family, he was very loved and received a lot of attention. I feel confident that my father’s passionate commitment to our immediate family came from the constant support and love he got from his own mother and siblings, who might have been compensating for my grandfather being less than affectionate.

Dad was a bruiser and a tough guy all his life, but it manifested much differently later because he was gregarious almost to a fault. He could walk into a room with ten people and they were all his friends before he left it. Now, if you’re reading this, you probably know what it is like to be in a conversation with a Burgess. We talk and talk…sometimes you’d think we just like to hear our own voices (yes, they do sound good), but, really, we like telling stories.

In my dad’s generation, I often say the nuance in the stories and their purpose changes from sibling to sibling. My dad focused on the funny. He was far more likely to tell you a joke than a story. He was always fond of them but, after his stroke a decade ago, he became a veritable sit-down comedian. Everyone nearby was subjected to them and he left most of the many, many hospitals since his stroke with nurses sorry to see him go because he kept them laughing and always had a positive attitude. It could be a problem, though. When we’d tell him, “Dad, that waiter kind of needs to actually go put in the order,” he’d say, “It’s good for his health! I’m helping him!” No one was safe from his laugh therapy. I tried to give him new joke books every year but he stuck to the old faithfuls most of the time, including one-liners that would make Henny Youngman proud. As he became increasingly difficult to understand, it wasn’t hard to listen for the moment when he was going to laugh so you could laugh along with him at the right moment.

My father’s major passion in middle life to late life was reading. He took a speed reading course as a younger man and never lost it. When I was young, he took the bus to his office in East L.A., reading on the way there and back, plus he’d hit the pages during two tea breaks in the morning and afternoon and also at lunch. With that, he’d polish off close to two books a day. Of course, these were not studies on neuroscience or impenetrable postmodern novels; his interest was in mysteries and biographies of pop culture icons. He also had zero interest in retaining those yellowed paperbacks like talismans of accomplishment – he was constantly moving the books he’d read out for the next batch and watching like an addict for the next library sale where books were a buck a bag. In the last year, I was his dealer, hitting all the library sales and used bookshops to round up enough books to keep him reading all day, every day. My Saturday morning ritual was to show him the books I’d gathered all morning in hopes that I’d get approval for more than 50% of them. I succeeded most of the time.

Among the lighter reading, he’d find time for some of his favorite literary authors and I’d bring them over for a re-read. He had an affinity for authors who seemed to write the same book over and over again – Bukowski, Kerouac (on whom we disagreed), Fitzgerald (on whom we agreed), and Thomas Wolfe – his favorite writer. Something about Wolfe appealed to my dad – maybe the overwhelming emotion in his prose, the questing real-life narratives, or the grandiose diction. Whatever the case, he delighted in Wolfe’s work and life, often repeating biographical details like Wolfe’s tendency to write while leaning against his refrigerator or how he died from TB after contracting it from a hobo he met when he jumped a train. A complete collection of Wolfe’s work is among the slim library my dad retained on his small shelves.

His other passion was the silver screen. He was an avid film lover and moviegoer. But he didn’t travel with film into the modern day. His love for moving pictures remained largely in the black-and-white. As a young man, he worked at a movie theater for some time and all those free movies might have developed the habit. He did love to talk about films and one of our rituals for ages was watching Siskel and Ebert in their various formats on Sunday evenings before dinner. Yet, huge swathes of film, and even music were unavailable to him because he didn’t like the performer. All those biographies gave him details about actors, singers, and directors that were lousy to their families, their wives, or their colleagues. After that, he wouldn’t want to see anything with that person involved. I used to tease him about it – “Who cares if Robert De Niro is a jerk? Raging Bull is amazing.” He wouldn’t budge. Even this last Christmas, he reminded me when he heard a Bing Crosby song on our playlist that the performer was ‘a terrible parent.’ Now, I realize this was just an extension of my dad’s goodness; he didn’t want even exceptional art if it came from bad people.

My dad’s passion for the written word on the page and on the screen inspired my own. Despite my love of technology, I followed in his footsteps and studied literature in college. It worked out in the career I have chosen that blends our great loves. While I tell stories in software more often than I do in prose, there is still the structure and the passion to tell a tale that will enlighten, inspire and enrich the life of the reader, here a user. That came from my dad.

The games came from him, too. Dad was a poker and cribbage player but mostly because of the society of play. Winning meant nothing to him; he craved card play for the chance to interact. When I was young, the monthly poker games my Dad attended was a highlight. Most of the attendees were family, my uncles and older cousins made up the bulk of the group, but some old friends of theirs often rounded out the table of freewheeling dealer’s choice. Yes, it was nice to play but it was mostly about the conversation. Dad played so he could tell and hear jokes, share family news, and spend time with his favorite buddies. The poker nights were an excuse to stay connected with family and friends. I see that in my own board gameplay now, that desire to hold on to my closest friends through regular sessions, keeping the creation of precious hours in regular production.

My cribbage memories are mostly of just the two of us playing. He was an incredibly generous player. He’d call ‘muggins’ if you missed points in your hand, but he’d give them to you anyway. This was a reaction to his own father who was notorious in the family for cheating. He’d back-peg and do all kinds of questionable stuff against even his own kids. I’m glad that what my dad learned from that is what NOT to do. I’ve learned well from his example here.

As we have lost so many of my dad’s generation in the family recently, I’ve often thought about how to distinguish the Burgessness of them all. Yes, that’s a word; it needed invention for that last sentence to work. My generation, of which I’m the youngest, know what I mean. There was a powerful sense of Burgessness throughout them all.

What was my dad best at? Sure, there was the humor I spoke about. Yet, there was also a sense of compassion in him that I admired. As the youngest of his family’s generation, I would like to think he was among the most modern with regard to accepting others. If the decades of time in social work taught him one thing, it was compassion for his fellow man and woman. My dad spent a lot of time with people who were facing the worst days of their lives. He had a positive spirit in his heart at all times so he could console, he could inspire, he could help. While neither of us had much use for organized religion, our Catholic upbringing did instill a concern for the weakest in society, which we both extended to tolerance. He believed in the common good and that America was about all people, not just your own tribe. Dad championed the underdog and the weak like all heroes do. I will always admire him for his lack of cynicism and interest in seeing real action over words.

As a father, he was devoted to making sure we had what we needed. He made sacrifices, neglected to have much of any kind of a mid-life crisis – other than briefly listening to more Willie Nelson and Jim Croce than was generally advisable – and was true to our family and his wife. He was not handy around the house; Dad couldn’t change a light bulb. He was certainly no gourmet unless you consider a predilection for peanut butter and butter sandwiches, or Velveeta on graham crackers to be avant-garde in some way. He blew the Santa thing by walking into the house with an Atari 2600 under his arm from Clarks Drugs when I was a kid, but at least he brought the thing home, despite an irrational fear of anything electronic. He didn’t drink, except for the occasional pina colada (of which I’d get a sip!), and never smoked because his own father had shortened his life with both of those vices. His kids are the same way as a result.

Dad would always drive you where you needed to go, pick you up when you were in a bind, help, throw money at a problem (what is money for, anyway?), and console you when things went wrong. Dad was always okay with your mistakes; he was there to help clean them up and get you back on track. Dad was exceptionally good at being supportive and not throwing something in your face when you failed because you didn’t listen to his advice. He never said ‘I told you so,” never wanted to “teach people a lesson”, never wanted to make it hard on someone when they were already down. He was a supervisor at work and I can remember how hard the employees fought to be on his team – they told me so without asking. They knew he was the kind of leader who worked with you and offered guidance, not the kind who obsessed on hierarchy. The masses at his retirement party years later spoke volumes; he was much-loved at work, too.

Dad never made us feel like we were not good enough, that his love had any strings, that his judgment was against us. He was generous with compliments, acknowledged the good things, and praised like no other. Even in the last days before he became largely incoherent, he was telling us we ‘were the best’, expressed his love for us, and talked about how wonderful his grandchildren were. He spoke this way to everyone. He saw value in spreading positivity as often as possible, and in every situation.

Dad stopped walking about a year ago and for most of that time, he was at a board-and-care facility just across the street from my house. I loved the fact that I could look out my front window when I got home from work and see if his light was on to know if I could visit. It was easy to slip over there; the people who ran the place knew me well enough that I didn’t need to sign in. Dad would always be happy to see me. His mind would start clouded and he’d need to get some ideas out of the way; he’d often start mid-sentence as if I’d walked in on a conversation he was already having, talking about the book he’d just read or some detail that was important enough that he returned to it with some frequency (like his brief time on the set of “Touch of Evil” or when he and I met Harlan Ellison, who tried to convince him to kick me out of the house when I commented on Ellison’s car commercials of the time). But once you got past those anecdotes that were sitting on top of his consciousness, you could really talk to him. We had so many good chats about what was going on these days (of course he hates Trump – he’s an awful person) and how the kids are doing (he would cry from joy when we discussed my son’s Eagle Scout rank or my daughter’s exceptional talent as a singer). He hasn’t been at full cognitive power for more than a decade, but he didn’t lose his sense of justice nor his deep love of his family.

I’ve had twenty years to get used to the fact that I would lose my dad one day. In 1998, he had bypass surgery and, in short order, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I thought I was going to lose him then. But he recovered. Then, the stroke hit in 2007 and again, I thought I was going to lose my dad. But he recovered. Seizures, minor strokes (perhaps) and an endless number of falls occurred in the next decade. We went to the ER a lot, each time prepared for the worst. But he recovered somehow again and again. We have had so many extra years to consider that we might lose him, which gave me a ton of time to express my appreciation for him. He met all of that with love. After his stroke, he often couldn’t contain his emotions so I would do my best to express my love with a laugh so he could laugh, too. It worked most of the time.

For me, this was all ‘bonus time.’ I am so grateful for every day of it.

Last Wednesday was the last day when Dad and I communicated directly. After the doctor called me and let me know he recommended that we let Dad enter hospice, I drove out to the hospital and woke him up. He recognized me by my voice, heard me tell him how much I loved him and responded with the same. He could no longer intake water so I used swabs to soothe him a bit, as I had done with my Uncle Bill just six months before. I was reminded to take that moment to express what I needed to, as I had with Uncle Bill. With Dad, though, I remembered how often I’d repeated what I wanted to say. He knew how much I loved him and appreciated him. He loved how I told him that his brother Bill had added to my personality as much as he had. He loved that I acknowledged my Uncle Ed as a similar inspiration in my life. He thought the world of them both and told me I was smart to not just learn from him because he’d done the same and learned so much from his brothers and sisters, even more than from his own father. We understood each other well. I didn’t have to say it all again. I just had to hug him and hold his hand and tell him I loved him.

So, I’m going to revise my earlier statement. My dad was a great man to the people in his life, to the people he helped and befriended – who are legion – and the people who he loved so much. He neglected being great for the world so he could be greater for all of us, those who knew him and, inevitably, loved him.