For Fred Davidson: In Memoriam

I want to thank all of you for coming to celebrate my Dad’s life here today, as he hoped we would do. You are family and friends, co-workers and loved ones, and all of you in my father’s eyes were important, valuable, people. I do not say that last thing as a matter of formality, but rather as perhaps the truest reflection of who my father was and what his life meant to me and many, many others. So I’ll repeat it again for you: in my father’s eyes, you were an important, valuable person.

A lot of what I have to say today may sound like I’m romanticizing a man who was, like all of us, human. A man who in the last years of his life endured pain and hardship. He saw some of his most treasured experiences taken away by his illness — the chance to take a walk and the chance to bake a pie (and to eat a piece or two). But my Dad was a man whose life, in almost every detail, was the very example of a life well-lived. He worried out loud, as his memory faded some, that he might not have been the parent he hoped or that others — my brothers and sisters — hoped he would be. You needn’t have, Dad.

I’m going to over-intellectualize things a little today and for some time to come — that’s part of who I am and probably how I deal with losing him. I promise not to go on too terribly long this way. But more than anything else, today, I want to leave you with an idea. Call it a proposal. It’s something we can do to make my father’s life meaningful in a thousand little ways. And it has to do with that way my father had of making you feel like the best you could possibly be. I think we can all honor him by being that way for one another.

All of you have heard of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But my Dad lived a version of the golden rule that goes well beyond that popular formulation, approaching something more like what the German philospher Emmanual Kant called the “categorical imperative.” Now, I don’t know if my Dad spent any time reading Kant when he was deployed in Germany in the Army, where I was born. But it wouldn’t shock me if he had. And I won’t bore you with a lecture about Kant. Instead I’ll ask you to consider what was most remarkable about my father: he lived Kant’s version of the golden rule. He did, routinely and without fail, treat other humans NOT as means to some end. Not as a way to get something he wanted. But as the end itself, as the valuable thing to which even his own interests were secondary. He saw you and me, minute-to-minute, as the most important things in his life.

This is a remarkable thing. Not least because it means that your own troubles and stresses, your own desires and obsessions, must fade to the background as the needs, hopes, dreams of another come into your life. Like so many principles of a virtuous life, this is easy to espouse, and not at all easy to live.

Luckily, my Dad left us the recipe. Here’s how it plays out. Think back, if you will, to the last time you met Fred Davidson’s gaze and saw, reflected in those kind blue eyes, the best version of yourself. The self maybe you didn’t often dare to acknowledge because you weren’t sure you could live up to it. In my father’s eyes, you were that whole, amazing person. Someone whose ideas mattered. Whose life’s details mattered. With a look and a nod, he let you know he cared about you and about the way you saw the world. He might not always agree with your views, but he met you — face to face — as the best version of yourself. And you probably came away from that encounter feeling good. Remarkably, my father could do that with strangers as well as with members of his family. It was simply who he was. Some might say he was selfless, but that’s not quite it. His sense of self was strong enough to be focused on the value and joy of the others he loved, worked with, and talked to.

I want to ask all of you today to carry this recipe with you. Live that way today and, as best you can, tomorrow. Do your best to meet the others in your life, day-to-day as whole human beings. Do them the honor of listening to their words. Show them the best versions of themselves as a matter of routine. It is the one enduring lesson I take from my father and that I strive daily to achieve. Ok, I am also desperately trying to learn to make his pie crust too, I admit that. And the truth is I have a long way to go in both categories.

My father saw a lot in his lifetime that might have made him more jaded. He grew up bright and hard working. He became a quiet leader by winning the trust of those around him in every place he worked: in the Army as an infrantryman charged with handling nuclear material, in the paint booth at Robbins & Meyers and the shop floor at PTI off Stop Eight Rd. And in the inventory cage at Systemax. Fred was a man who led, quietly, because others chose to follow his example.

When I say my Dad was a quiet man, I mean too that he would rather talk about you — especially if you were a kid — than himself. But, quiet as he was, he was also a man of words. A writer and reader. And so I have taken some care with my words today to honor him. You could hear the delight he took in reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to the shining faces gathered around him on Christmas Eve. We’ll miss him every year now on the holiday, his eyes how they twinkled, his dimples how merry…

To all of you who loved my Dad, I want to say thank you for filling his life with joy. I want to thank Patti and her children and their children — the Geesner & Lewis families that became our family. To my Mom, Donna Smith, for finding a way to make room for all the love my brother Sean & I needed for and from both of you. Thank you to his many friends for sharing laughs with him, for gushing about his confectionary talents, and for putting a hand on his shoulder when he needed to connect. I am deeply grateful. And humbled. Even as I try to figure out how to get along without him, I have what he left behind in all of you.

It’s a strange thing, but so common to those who face losing a parent, to ask “how will I go about missing my Dad?” There is no playbook. But my Dad even left me with a way — maybe the best way — to do that.

My father’s life, seen from the outside, had a deliberate pace. He could go slow and stay in the present. He could take in the little pleasures of life: a pair of green herons roosting by a river bank, the high lonesome harmony of a bluegrass tune, the gurgle of a newborn baby, the tender crumb of a perfect shortbread cookie. This deliberate pace of life is something many admired about him and that we can all use a little more of in our lives. My Dad loved to watch birds; he had the ability to appreciate all the beauty around him. And as a consequence, his life was full of the details that make life wonderful. They surround us even now, today, here. When you miss him, take them in. Dwell in that place. Miss him, but don’t miss all the rest. Because he would want you to know: life is beautiful.

Know, too, that you can be the person you were in my father’s eyes. Whole, amazing, vital. As for me, I’ll be doing my best to meet you as he did, each day, with an abiding respect for your humanity; and I’ll be doing my best to meet each day with the quiet joy for the details as he could do. I love you Dad. Thanks for showing me the way.

September 27, 2014

Hyphenated, father, academic, juggler, cyclist, cook. Philosophy of life: give.

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