(Note: The beginning is a little mumbled, but the rest is much clearer):
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Thank you all for coming. This has been an incredible week for our family and we appreciate your presence and support.
(My father fit so well into this church that you may not realize that the cross on the altar here is actually the urn containing his ashes, built by my brother Mike this week in Bill Nauss’ workshop. The Nausses also happen to be friends of my father’s brother John and his wife Jocelyne, who can’t be here, so that’s another nice connection for us.)
With all the lovely things that have been said and will be said about my father, I think I should share with you a few of his foibles so that you know he wasn’t an angel walking among us. (Although he seemed to get more angelic as he got older.)
One of his foibles was telling the same story or joke over and over again. He did it to great effect on his last morning, the day after his heart attack, to let us know that he knew that he was dying. He said, “Well, as the monkey said when he got his tail caught in the meat grinder…” … pause … “It won’t be long now!”
We heard many of his stories often, growing up and since then. Fortunately, he has left us his wonderful memoirs, written 10 years ago, which we have been dipping into in the last few days. Somehow the stories seem more interesting and precious now.
He was 3 years old, an only child, when his family moved to Nova Scotia from Denmark, after an early childhood enveloped in the cocoon of a warm extended family. He writes that he always felt a “Paradise Lost” just under the level of conscious memory, and he clung to everything Danish: language, family, genealogy, Danish history and the history of Danes in Nova Scotia, and maple danishes at Tim Horton’s. That way, he said, he could be patriotic to both countries.
It seemed to us that devotion to things Danish kept his mind in the past. But there were rich lessons, too, from the Scandinavian culture: a humanitarian orientation towards equality, community, and simple contentment that’s reflected in a Norwegian hymn he loved to quote:
Here is summer sun enough, here is fertile land enough,
If only, if only we have love enough.
His material wants and needs were simple and he was easily pleased. Growing up on farms during the Depression taught him to appreciate a basic boiled potato more than a fancy one stuffed with herbs and served au gratin.
In 1987, he joined me in Nicaragua in order to see first hand the effect the Sandinista revolution was having on the lives of people there. One day, standing around in our $1/night hotel in Managua, I was telling him how pleased I was that he was willing to hitchhike for rides in the back of trucks, to sleep wherever, and to eat the simple food that was available. He replied that it reminded him of growing up on farms during the Depression, and if that was how people lived, then he was content to share it.
Then the ground shook – it was a minor earth tremor. A few years before, the city had experienced a devastating earthquake. We moved to the middle of the courtyard, so that we wouldn’t be crushed by the heavy clay roof tiles if they were to fall. Later I asked him what had gone through his mind at that moment. He replied, “Well, why not that, too?”
Why not share the life, the fate, of the poorest of these? Who was he to expect better than anyone else?
It is hard to distinguish a person’s humility from lack of self-confidence. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. Flemming displayed both in his life.
He was reading in two languages by the time he started school, and was put into Grade 2 right away, according to the wisdom of the day. This put him ahead of his age group, which made it harder for him to develop leadership skills and self-confidence. He was flabbergasted when his Grade 12 classmates chose him as valedictorian. He figured it was because they knew he was planning to study for the ministry and because of what he jokingly called his “useless knowledge”, which impressed them nonetheless.
“My chief impression of my early school years is one of a naiveté which invited the other kids to laugh at me and take advantage of me. I minded this sort of humiliation but did not tell my parents. I have always found it easy to learn, and have liked the learning process; but my interests have seldom been those of the people around me. I am rather impractical, at least as far as mechanics and business are concerned, and have little self-confidence about such matters. I am a dreamer and a reader…. Like Mother, I have approached life with a good deal of anxiety, finding it hard to deal with opposition and criticism. But with the passage of time I believe the other pupils in the school learned to respect my scholastic ability and my concern for the younger children.”
His father’s ambitions to be a minister had been thwarted by events, and when Flemming was born, his parents dedicated him to the church. They didn’t force him, and they didn’t tell him about having chosen this destiny for him until he had chosen it for himself, but they groomed him. And so he was ordained at the young age of 24.
Perhaps others will speak more of his career as a United Church minister. I will just say that it must sometimes be a very rewarding job, and other times extremely frustrating, depending on the politics in a particular congregation, especially if one has a thin skin and feels sensitive to criticism. And it can be very hard on families who can find themselves living in a fishbowl. (Be kind to your minister!) But it gave him lots of opportunity to practice unconditional love.
I can also say that he wrote interesting sermons. He brought together his considerable biblical scholarship with the issues of the day. The ministry also gave him opportunities to get people working for social action. My sister Pam and I remember hearing talks by missionaries, most notably Dr. Robert McClure, which influenced us deeply.
Dad spent the summer of ’67 studying at Coady International Institute. There we met interesting people from Third World countries, and got an introduction to international development. That experience led Flemming towards his work in human rights.
The Nova Scotia and Canadian Human Rights Commissions were staffed by idealists like him, eager to make the world a better place for all. Lasting friendships resulted. Carol and Mike remember him taking them to a clandestine viewing of a film on apartheid in South Africa. This was before the issue had hit the news, and the makers of the film were risking their lives to produce and distribute the film. He wanted them to see it, too.
One of his life challenges was to rebel against his father. Perhaps he didn’t really achieve this task until his father died, but he reinforced it every time he took a sip of wine. Anytime you’re in a restaurant and you say, “… I’ll have a glass of white wine,” please think of Flemming. I will.
He thought he would have preferred to be a teacher than a minister. He certainly loved working with kids and organized various summer camps and youth groups during his career.
His first pupil was his sister Anna, another was me, as the oldest child who got more of his attention than the others, and the last, of course, was my son, Malcolm.
His sister Anna is in Mexico and can’t be with us today, but asked me to read the e-mail she sent to Flemming which he did not get to hear before he died.
Flemming, you have been preparing for this for a long time now. You have made it clear that you want a swift and painless passing, not a prolonged period of suffering for yourself and your loved ones.
I want you to know you have always been an important part of my life, the good and the bad. You gave me unconditional love, no matter what the circumstances, for that I thank you.
I remember that I could read before I entered kindergarten. I have always attributed this to your patience and teaching skills, not to my own brilliance. Although you were away most of my growing up years, I was always excited when you came home to visit.
We have shared a lot, you and I. You have always been there to support me and this will continue, no matter what happens. I know this, because of Father. You can now share that burden with him.
At this time we are not certain what the outcome will be. A big part of me wants you to get better and go on for another 10 years or so. This may not happen and perhaps that will be what Heather calls your “miracle”. God may decide to grant your wish for a comfortable demise, surrounded by your loved ones.
You deserve the very best, big brother. I love you.
Indeed, he loved unconditionally; his heart was pure and simple in that way. But in expressing that love he was sometimes awkward, and he had a lot to learn – and did learn a lot, I think – in the romance department. It was one of his life challenges to learn to swim in the sea of romantic passion. He dove right in once without really knowing how to swim, but he spawned his offspring and was eventually washed up on shore half drowned, and after that he watched from the shore a lot, dipped his toe in from time to time, took a few strokes, even floated happily for a time but never quite managed to swim like a fish in the sea of romantic love. But he never gave up on it.
He loved us, his children and grandson, unconditionally. He was proud of our characters as much as he was of our achievements. In his quiet way he was our biggest cheerleader. He was glad to be able to help out each of us out financially – in small ways – when we were struggling. He always loved to just have us around, doing our own thing. He so needed people to connect with on a day-to-day, mundane level.
He’d had a bout of polio when he was 16, and recovered, but the long-term consequences showed up in the last few years. Those of you who have seen him regularly have noticed the gradual decline in his vigour since that wonderful 80th birthday party that we had here, three years ago. Probably, the muscles and nerves that had been compromised by the polio finally were giving out, and, to quote Rudyard Kipling’s “If”: we saw him
… force [his] heart and nerve and sinew
To serve [his] turn long after they were gone,
And so he held on when there was nothing in him
Except the Will which said to them: ‘Hold on!’
He was looking forward to living in a nursing home and was hoping he’d be able to make the move while he could still be useful. In fact, as some people pointed out, he would probably have thrived there, with lots of people to talk to and share stories with.
It was a privilege to be so close to such a person facing the end of his life. Even a couple of years ago it felt to me, and some others, that he was getting a little transparent. The body was fading and the essence was coming through more clearly.
As his strength and puff gradually declined, he was finding it harder to get around.
But he continued to follow local and world events closely, and regretted not being able to write as many letters to newspapers and politicians as he would like. His sense of social justice was as strong as ever, and his pen grew bolder.
In the last few months a number of people have contacted him concerning things he’d been involved with over the last 60 years, and several friends and relatives came to visit. Consequently, he found himself again piecing together the patchwork quilt of his life, in his mind, seeing the relationships between the pieces, how one was connected to another, observing the threads that ran through it.
A few months ago he told me that he didn’t know what the next adventure was going to be like, what was going to happen when he died, but he was surprised to find himself feeling excited about it.
His only fear was of being bedridden and helpless, in chronic pain, and not useful. He was very clear with his doctors and everyone else that he would like to go quickly, and not linger. Though his vigour was declining, his ailments were unlikely to finish him off, just make life increasingly painful. Two weeks ago he came here to church and for the first time the fatigue and pain made him regret having made the effort.
And then out of the blue came a massive heart attack. When I told him what the doctor was telling me, that he wasn’t likely to survive it, he simply said, “That’s all right.” And it was all right with him. Some people were hoping for a miracle, but the heart attack was his miracle.
(Although after cleaning out his garbage can the other day and seeing all the empty potato chip bags, I’m thinking about how he may have managed to manifest this miracle.)
His timing was exquisite, with my brother, who would be with him when he died, already on the road to get here for Thanksgiving; with the weather turning cold – which he dreaded – and the leaves falling from the trees; with friends able to visit at short notice on a holiday weekend; with the balance of life’s daily rewards and daily pain tipping irrevocably toward the painful side.
We, his children, may have taken him for granted sometimes, but he never took us for granted, and counted us among his best friends. On his last morning when Dorcas and I walked into his room, he looked at us both and smiled and said, “I’m so lucky.”
His brother’s wife, my aunt Jocelyne, who is a Buddhist, this week shared with me a teaching from one of her teachers. Nothing comes from nothing, and nothing goes to nothing. We do not come from nothing, and we do not go to nothing. My father felt similarly, actually. “Surely,” he wrote, “the growth I have experienced here will not be wasted, so presumably there is some way in which it can continue. But so far I have felt little need to speculate about what lies on the other side. One world at a time. I leave the other to God.” And more recently he wrote us, his children: “I have learned in recent years to not try to define God. He/she is beyond definition. In my younger years I took life after death for granted, but already in the 1970s I had some difficulty with funerals as I felt people expected me to say something heartwarming about meeting one’s loved ones after death. Now I am just grateful to have known you all and to have had a share in your lives. And I feel that joining with others, mainly in the church but also out of it, to make the world a better place is more than enough for our small efforts. One world at a time. God is Unconditional Love.”