I’ve been missing my father more keenly than ever these past few weeks. Our New York Giants’ thrilling playoff ride, planning my upcoming wedding, seeing one of his most beloved former students in the audience at a reading I did at the Cornwall CT Library – all of these joyful things have brought him back to me with vividness and poignancy. Then, yesterday, I heard the news that an extraordinary colleague of my father’s at Yale Drama School, Earle Gister, had died, and I’ve since been hearing from former students of both men, one of whom wrote, as he put it, “to share my appreciation for the light your dad brought into the world.”
A few weeks ago, I shared the New York Times piece my father wrote on Super Bowl Sunday, 1987, about our bond and the New York Giants. Today, I share the eulogy I gave for my father in March 2007, which brings the Giants together with William Wordsworth and celebrates my father’s sympathetic magic:
EULOGY FOR DADDY, March 26th, 2007
Symphony Space, New York City
I’m framing my remarks today with William Wordsworth and the NY football Giants, a juxtaposition entirely in the spirit of my father. Here is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Scenes in Early Childhood” :
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
When I think of my father, it’s just such transformations of the common into the extraordinary, such freshness of perception, such spiritual intensity, and ardent dreaminess that strike me as especially remarkable. The very first memory I have is, as I think on it now, a kind of Wordsworthian scene, but one in which my father, the nominal adult, helped me, the young child, to see as a child ideally should. It was a summer night in Spain, I was a little over three, and an especially dramatic thunderstorm woke me, terrified, in the middle of the night. The memory begins with my father’s voice in my ear and the two of us gazing out into the night. Framed by the large window, the scene before us was like a little theatre: the familiar garden strangely unfamiliar, the sky an indigo blue lit periodically by silvery flashes.
Narrating the scene, my father sounded like a madcap sportscaster: “there’s a big lightning! there’s a little one . . . oh a big one again!” he cried as he held me firmly with one hand and gesticulated skyward with the other. I remember something disorienting becoming something glorious. I remember feeling so safe not because he protected me from fear but because he helped me to confront it. He didn’t tuck me back into bed; he took me to the window. I remember asking him: “when is the thunder going to come again, Daddy?” and him telling me “I don’t know, Sidda, but that’s part of the excitement, isn’t it?” My father reassured me that it was alright not to know, to remain in a state of awe and mystery. He gave what could have been a nightmare the glory and the freshness of a dream.
My father’s magical combination of solidity and ebullience, fierce protectiveness and playful charm, made him the most reassuring parent imaginable. A few examples:
He was known in our family as the Great Finder, who could elevate a mundane search for a lost bus-pass into a thrilling hunt complete with clues, retracing steps, and suspects, with my father in the role of the wise, witty, and unflappable Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or Perry Mason (all great heroes of his).
On a nursery school outing to the Bronx Zoo, my father scooped up a young rapscallion who’d been bothering me, dangled him over the tall fence around the lion area, and said with a mischievous grin: “I think it’s feeding time, and if you don’t stop pestering my daughter, it’s into the lion’s den for you!”
The rule was that daddy was never to be disturbed when he was hard at work in his study, but to this rule there was one exception: we could always knock on his study door with a worry. He often addressed these worries in the persona of his Sesame Street alter ego Super Grover: “do not worry little girl, I will solve the problem.” But despite or perhaps because of his lighthearted approach, I never felt that he would belittle me for my worries, no matter how inconsequential they might have been.
As anyone who knew my father well would attest, he was a person who himself needed a good deal of reassurance; he was an extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable man. Perhaps it was for that very reason that he knew especially well how to honor vulnerability in others, and that children and animals universally adored him.
Retaining that childlike intensity of feeling and capacity for wonder, that acute sensitivity as it blended into vulnerability, however, had attendant with it certain risks- for my father and for the daughters who learned to love as he did: with the entirety of our beings. If you loved like that, you could get your heart broken, even by a football team.
On the Sunday in January 1987 when the Giants at long last won the Superbowl, the New York Times published what became one of my father’s favorite and most frequently cited pieces: “The Wounded Giant Regains His Dignity.” The piece begins as follows:
On a darkening afternoon seven or eight years ago, I sat with my small daughter in Giants Stadium watching Roger Staubach drive the Cowboys 60 or 70 yards for a winning field goal in the last few seconds. As Rafael Septien’s kick went through the uprights, my daughter burst into tears. The next day, she saw a photo in The Times of Harry Carson sitting in dejection on the Giants’ bench and told me she wanted to write to him. I remember the words of the letter because we worked on it together hoping to relieve both our broken hearts. “You mustn’t be sad,” she told the Giant linebacker. ”You’re a great player and a wonderful man. We’ll all be happy again. I love you. Priscilla Gilman, age 9.”
Just one year after I sent the letter to Harry Carson, I found myself uttering much the same words to my father. He was now facing one of the large challenges of his life with the loss of our family in the wake of his separation from my mother. In this situation, and later with his diagnosis of terminal cancer, Claire and I drew on everything our father had taught us about how to comfort, reassure, and love.
A line from Daddy’s Giants article is helpful here:
Being a fan,” he wrote, “means practicing a form of sympathetic magic, by which you suffer with, draw strength from, and generally share in the vicissitudes and personas of modern day champions and heroes.”
He had always been our biggest fan and we his, and as we had drawn strength from him, now we suffered with him, as we had basked in his sympathetic magic, now we shared, whole-heartedly and without qualification, in his vicissitudes.
The indignities of his illness were many, but perhaps the greatest was that without the power of speech or the ability to move his face, he could no longer practice his sympathetic magic. But today, in our words of love and tribute, in the photographs and video footage you are about to see, the wounded giant has regained his dignity.
My father’s Giants article concludes as follows :
So this afternoon several of us will gather in my apartment [to watch the Giants]. . . Priscilla will of course be there . . . She’ll be on edge, agog, scared sometimes, but finally, I predict, ecstatic. Tomorrow she may even want to write another letter to Harry Carson, saying some such thing as this: Didn’t I tell you! I still love you. More than ever.”
So Daddy, I say to you today: “Didn’t I tell you? I still love you. More than ever.”