It’s my Dad’s 85th birthday today and although he is still very much alive and kicking, I took the liberty of writing his eulogy.
He’s going to wake up today (jeez, I sure hope he wakes up today or this post will be one hell of a bummer), hunch over his laptop with his cup of instant coffee in hand, settle in to read my Monday morning post (as he adorably and fastidiously does every week), and be in for a potentially heart attack-inducing surprise.
Don’t give me that look, reader.
I didn’t just write his eulogy because I’m extraordinarily proactive, and I didn’t just write this because I’m morbid (for the record, I’m the zestiest morbid person you’ll ever drink margaritas with). I wrote this because I want my Dad to hear the things I plan to say about him after he bites the biscuit — things I don’t typically say in our usual shoot-the-shit Monday + Wednesday + Friday “what’s the weather like down there today” phone chats. My Dad has specifically requested a closed casket situation at his funeral (to each their own, even after death, I suppose), so I’m thinking he won’t be hearing much from within his walnut-walled coffin. Now’s my chance to give him a pre-mortem preview. I love him to death (pun intended!) and I’d rather be weird and have him feel the love than play it cool and have him miss out.
The (premature) eulogy
Robert George Ruel was born in 1937 in Essex, Ontario — a wee little town just a stone’s throw from Detroit, Michigan — establishing him as a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan by virtue of proximity. (More on that later.)
One of five kids, he grew up in an era balanced with simple pleasures and austerity: collecting treasured baseball cards… having to use war ration coupons… gathering around the radio to listen to evening programs… traipsing 13 km (8 miles) across town for a better education at Assumption College High School (yes! — he was the classic kid who traveled uphill both ways to and from school in the snow). Mild-mannered as he was, he just put his head down and did what he had to do.
At 19 he fled the coop to look for work in the big city. Listening to my Dad tell tales from that time in his life, it appears as though 1956 was a great time to be a spring chicken in Toronto. Watching Ronnie Hawkins play at the Concord Tavern, eating at diners morning, noon, and night, frequenting joints like the Seaway Motel for 35 cent beers… fun was being had. Cleaning, apparently, wasn’t: the story goes that he’d have to stand on his bed to get dressed before work, lest he drag his pant legs in the floor dust. He never really took to the domestic arts.
My Dad was a lover, not a fighter. At 6’3” he was a gentle giant, with zero appetite for conflict. He did have an appetite, however, for the ladies; he was an altar boy, but he was certainly no angel. Picture Frank Sinatra crooning Strangers in the Night as the soundtrack to my Dad’s dating escapades in the 60s. Sharing a bottle of wine together on his 81st birthday, I coaxed a few dating-heyday stories out of him about girls that were, according to him, “out of his league” — the kinds of girls you’d say goodbye to first, before they inevitably said goodbye to you. I think my Dad sold himself short, at least until he met my Mother.
At 36 he settled down with Marlene, my soon-to-be Mom. They created a classic suburban life in Milton, Ontario, with daughters and a rotating roster of family pets my Dad would have to drive to the cornfield when they didn’t work out. (To clarify: he’d escort the wayward animals to the cornfield, not the kids. And it was the 80s, so animal rights weren’t as… robust.) My Dad was a top-notch father of three girls. He was caring, generous, supportive to no end, and truly engaged. I’m proud he wasn’t just my Dad, but that he was also a best friend I could count on for advice and words of encouragement. He was my biggest fan and I only hope he knew the feeling was mutual.
When I was seven I proclaimed in writing that I was never getting married. I later amended the document to bet my Dad $300 I wouldn’t get married until I was at least 25 (just like the cornfields… don’t ask). When we moved out of our family home my Dad lamented that we had forgotten the folded up oh-so-official paper tucked into the door to the attic. Much to my surprise he produced the tattered yet legally binding document during his speech at my wedding; reading it out loud, he gave me three crisp hundred dollar bills for winning the bet he knew all along he’d lose. My Dad was honorable and thoughtful, with that hint of mischievousness.
My Dad was a dedicated and diligent worker. Retiring from Caterpillar after 37 years — gold watch included! — he climbed the corporate ladder to become the General Manager of the Parts Distribution Center in Toronto. Ever the diplomat, he helped negotiate tricky union agreements and when offered a promotion to manage the largest Caterpillar plant in LA, he said no because he had a teenager at home whose life he didn’t want to disrupt (but oh how I’d have loved my life to have been disrupted by moving to LA at 17!). Three lessons about work I learned from my Dad:
Always overdress for the part (I watched him wear a three-piece suit and tie for most of his career).
Keep your chin up with a stellar work ethic (I watched him work 10 hours a day like clockwork without a whiff of complaint, not even once).
The 5 Ps: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance (I watched him diligently prepare for every meeting, every performance review, every presentation, every trip to Caterpillar’s HQ in Peoria, IL… so writing this eulogy makes me a “proper planning” chip off the old block).
I’m so grateful I had him as a career role model.
Apart from his girls, my Dad had two loves in life: horses and baseball. About a foot too tall to be a jockey, baseball held some hope for him. And oh how close he came to the big leagues! He made it to a New York Yankees tryout camp, dazzling them on day one and unfortunately pitching a few too many home runs on day two. Not many people can say they came that close to wearing the same uniform as Babe Ruth. Not many people can also say that they’ve pre-arranged their gravestone to be engraved with the iconic Tigers’ “D”… and speaking of engravings, at 73 my Dad got that infamous Tigers’ D tattooed into his left arm. His beloved baseball glove sat in the trunk of his car right until the end, ready for an impromptu game of catch with his brothers or nephews. It now rests where it belongs: on his left hand, forever.
My Dad was warm and kind and gregarious — a true introvert in disguise. While he lived like a lone wolf, watching baseball and horseracing on TV up in his condo, he’d light up the elevator with small talk and want nothing more than to connect with his family to check in on the latest and greatest. He’d share the family updates with me in earnest: tales of who was moving out west, who was getting a new dog, who wasn’t feeling well, who was dating again… the ups and downs of any family circle. Always afraid of being a third wheel (one of his favorite lines was Benjamin Franklin’s “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”), he’d make short but sweet visits back home. When the three-hour drive became less and less desirable, he’d relish his phone chats with Bern, Len, and Mary even more so.
My Dad was always up for a laugh and could be counted on to cause laughs. Easy-going and light-hearted, he was fun to be around (and I just wish I did get to be around him more). He’d cluck like a chicken in his underground parking lot, announce imaginary baseball games (man, he would have made a great sports broadcaster), and vividly recall Seinfeld reruns. He’d read the obituaries in the Toronto Star every single day, “just to check if my name’s there.” What a fun, jovial man.
My Dad taught me to accept life with equanimity. “I’ve lived my life,” he’d say — usually after I reminded him that his Mom lived until 103 and that he still had a lot of time left to bet the ponies. “I’m betting on house money,” he’d then say, with a healthy dose of reality that he’d outlived the actuary tables and knew his days were numbered. Ever the planner (cue those 5 P’s) he had all his death-related ducks in a row; every time I’d visit he’d escort me to the spot on his dining room table reserved for his end-of-life files. “So you know who to call, right Jo?”
My Dad used to reenact the scene with Marlon Brando from the 1954 film, On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody.” You might not have made it to the big leagues, Dad, but you were absolutely a contender, and the biggest somebody in my life. May you rest in peace (without having to get up to pee three times each night).
I love you.
Okay so because he’s not dead (phew!), I arranged for the Tigers’ announcer Dan Dickerson to wish my Dad a happy birthday. Check out this video!Happy 85th birthday, Dad.
Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!