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My father-in-law died last Tuesday. Like Dinka, I don't have any experience with the death of close family or friends as an adult, which has mostly meant that it hasn't really registered yet, or only fleetingly. The fact that we saw each other so infrequently—in the last ten years, we probably spent six months in the same country together—has made it even more difficult to understand. What does it mean that he's gone? He wasn't here before so on the surface, things are the same as always.

There are advantages to having this kind of relationship. The times that we did see each were always cause for celebration, because they were scarce and also tended to be around happy occasions—holidays, baptisms, weddings, vacations, etc. All of my memories of him are good ones. We never had to go through any hard times or arguments, we just had to enjoy each other's company, relax and feast together, none of which were ever a problem. As a result, I suppose I didn't know him as well as many others but right now, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing either. We only had to see each other's good sides and so that's the impression that I'll always be left with, one that may be incomplete but is no less true—a man of great faith and generous love, always joking and laughing, celebrating life and being thankful for what he was given.

As the flood of the last couple of weeks has reminded me, my memories of him are also surprisingly vivid. I remember the first day we met, an overanxious, sparsely bearded 19-year-old eager to shake the hand of his girlfriend's father and make a good impression. He was doing some kind of housework and his hands were full of some kind of chemicals, so he apologized and shrugged it off with a laugh. I remember furiously cursing his name under my breath, in disbelief that a retirement-age man (not that one could tell from watching him play) was running me around the tennis court and making me look foolish. Hustle may have earned me his respect but it didn't result in many wins. I remember the long talk we had at his dining room table a few months before Dinka and I were married—after a long meal, his head rested in his hands and eyes closed in concentration—about the theological truths revealed in the Sacrament of Marriage and the beauty of married and family life. He was right about all of it. I remember grilling steaks at our first apartment on a November night in Indiana, passing a flask of cognac back and forth to stay warm and trying to prevent the howling wind from fanning the flames out of control.

I hear his voice in my head and I laugh. His phrases have become part of our vocabulary: his "special method" for accomplishing anything, calling vacation "vacancies", his pronunciation of "whole" ("HOOL!") and his oft-repeated expression of contentment, "such beautiful life." He spoke English like I played tennis, with little training and a lot of determination. I don't think he would mind me quoting this closing paragraph of an email he sent to me as an example.

My dear son in law. Our life is a big present and big task. I got a lot of presents in my life, but the task to learn English properly I failed. Otherwise, I believe this will not be the main reason for staying in purgatory for long time.

Fittingly, he ends with a joke. He loved to tell jokes and had a whole (HOOL!) army of them at his disposal, collected from seventy years and three languages. He would always make Dinka translate them, no matter how untranslatable, and then laugh again at the translation, nudging me to join in.

All of this is not to say that our relationship was purely superficial. I learned a lot from him, through our conversations but mostly by his example, about being a Catholic, a husband and a father. It's on the topic of fatherhood where thinking about this starts to get tough. I always felt that fatherhood was one of things that most closely brought us together. When I became a father, I joined him in what was one of the defining experiences of his life and he shared in my joy as a fellow father and as a grandfather. When I think about everything from our kids' perspective, knowing how much they meant to him (and vice versa) and seeing the sadness in their eyes, it's too much to bear.

Veronika and Ivan have taken a sudden interest in jokes lately, not so much in the content but as an excuse to burst into uncontrollable laughter. They've been very disappointed in what little I've been able to provide, bringing me to the sad realization that I'm going to have to Google "funny kids jokes." After I deferred joke-telling again the other night, Veronika thought for a minute and then said, "Papa? When we get to heaven, will Deda be able to tell us jokes there?" I responded the only way I knew how: "I think so, baby."

October 02, 2008 | Comments (11)