Tragedy can be beautiful, but it rarely seems so while it occurs, or to those who endure it. Last week I witnessed a co-worker say goodbye to his father, a life cut short at 55 years, struck down indiscriminately by a heart attack. Jim was a biker, his sons, including my friend, are bikers, and I was able to piece together from the service that he’d been on a ride on a Sunday, came home, had some chest pains and then was taken, too soon, from this earth.
Having only met Jim Sr. a handful of times, several of us from the fire department went to the service as a show of support for our friend, in a small town an hour away. The parking lot, bombarded by motorcycles of various schemes and type, was packed already, and the number of people in leathers far outnumbered those of us that weren’t. My co-worker, named after his father, clearly was in charge of the presentation of the service, and kept a command presence as people flowed in to begin paying their respects; a strong bastard, usually with a quick tongue, Jim Jr. seemed merely grateful for all who were showing up, and in the bear-like hugs he gave each of us, you could feel the strain on his heart.
His father was his best friend, a fact not lost on anyone who’d ever been around them. His father taught him about respect, hard work and honest-dealing. Jim Sr. had had a rough and rowdy early life and decided one day to straighten up because his family needed him. Thus began a life devoted to family, work and the open road. I was thinking, naively, that in the vein of bikers being tough guys, the service would be terse and brief.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Instead, it was a gut wrenching foray into the beauty of a man, devoted. Devoted to his family, devoted to his children through their own struggles, devoted to his grand-daughters who seemed to take delight in painting a grandfathers fingernails pink. He was devoted to his professional craft of painting, with more than one reference in the service to his perfectionistic ways and attention to detail. His children read letters to their dad, breaking down as they described the cornerstone of their world being ripped away from them, their voices cracking as they were being forced to say goodbye. Their love for him was overwhelming, displayed in a raw, emotion-laden fashion, and leaving the rest of us with tears flowing freely, without restraint, for this beautiful family, crying over a man we never knew.
And, people being people, we turn inward at such moments. We wonder what would happen if we were to go suddenly, unexpectedly? How would our loved ones describe their emotions? How would we deal with having to say goodbye to our own fathers, our own best friends? Many people already have, most of us most certainly will, but it is heavy the heart that has to endure it.
As we listened and absorbed all that this man was about, I couldn’t help but think that there was no way he could have done the important things better; his fiercely loyal sons and daughter, his dedicated and devoted wife ALL alluded to his commitment to them. They described him in a way that every father hopes to be remembered by their children. Every father wants to hear that their kids know they were first in their hearts. Every father hopes to enjoy a lifelong bond with their offspring, strengthened over time. Every father wants to be the kind of father that Jim Sr. was and no doubt that Jim Jr. has become.
It was a thing of beauty to witness. Tragic, yes, but through the pain, a thing of beauty.
We should all be so lucky to have the kind of family bonds displayed before us. But, in all likelihood, luck had little to do with it. What was displayed before us was the fruit of a lifetime of work and devotion to that which is important in this world. While I’m so sorry for my friend, for their loss, I know that he is so proud of his father and proud to be his son.
Jim led the funeral procession on his father’s bike, a long winding path for a final ride, and I cannot fathom the depths of his thoughts. But, as we loaded up into a car, ready to trek back to the real world, the same strength, integrity and resolve of the father was being displayed by the son.
And I’m proud to call him my friend.