I am not a slave to linear narratives. Some stories are best told with the ending firmly planted in your mind to appreciate them.
And, so it is with my father and our life together.
In my blog entry “Before the Parade” [see http://stephenportell.com/index.php/2016/12/18/before-the-parade/], you, gentle reader, were informed that I came from an abusive home–a home where my father’s unpredictable outbursts of rage resulted in real emotional and physical harm to me, my siblings and my mother. In the days to come, I hope to tell the interesting story of how this terrible beginning had a happy, loving ending. I hope to tell you about the small revelations along the way. I want to tell you about forgiveness, understanding and how much love and change a human heart can contain.
I loved my dad. I was probably closer to my dad than anybody on this earth. But it wasn’t easy. I am here to tell you he redeemed himself–that is the happy ending. He died a year ago on January 2, 2016. I am here to share the final words I spoke to him and about him at his funeral:
Dearest Friends and Beloved Family, it seems we are here again at St. Bridget’s too soon.
It is my honor to talk to you about my father, George Portell.
But which man shall I eulogize?
The man who worked 360 days straight without a SINGLE DAY OFF in an auto plant that was dirty, noisy and ultimately poisonous?
Or should I talk about a man who loved nothing better than playfully building the BIGGER, BETTER amplifier or the tallest antenna tower?
Should I tell you about the man who nursed me back to health after a motorcycle accident or the man WHO taught me to ride motorcycles in a church parking lot?
The cautious, sensible man or the daredevil who loved speed?
How about the man who had strict rules about his home, but invited two of my friends to live with us when they became homeless after high school?
I could tell you an interesting story after mass about my dad’s showdown with a low-level mobster, but I will also tell you how my father saved that same man’s son from freezing in the Michigan snow in the dead of winter.
Ultimately, if we speak to honor our loved ones—and I dearly love my dad—we can only do so by speaking the truth.
And, my dad was a complicated man. I happy to report to you that he was different in all kinds of good ways.
While other kids got plain old toys for Christmas, my father gave me electric drills and REAL tools. While other dads were manicuring their lawns, my dad taught me morse code and how NOT to electrocute myself in the radio room. He taught me how to mill the head on my first motorbike, so I could push out a little more HP.
And compared to other fathers in the neighborhood, my dad possessed great physical strength and determination. He had huge hands with thick callouses. I don’t know that he actually needed a wrench to remove lug nuts.
But…he didn’t want to play football, because—and I quote him now—“It hurt to get hit.”
Still, I trusted him to hold up engines while my tiny hands replaced engine mounts. I trusted him to lift me from bed to bath when I was too weak to walk.
I trusted him, because he was unfailingly loyal. Fiercely loyal. He was a faithful friend to many of you assembled here. And, unapologetically affectionate and faithful to his family.
Still, my dad’s parenting style too often strayed into “cautionary tale” rather than “Leave it to Beaver”. Who teaches an 8 year old how to use an arc welder? My dad.
I’ve got a newsflash for all you kids here today.
Parents are not perfect. Children are not perfect. Our friends are not perfect. We need to forgive and seek forgiveness far more than we do. We are all recruited from the same flawed human race.
And so it was with my father.
But to me, he was perfectly flawed.
My father was a complicated man caught in a predicament of extremes.
- A temperamental, wrathful man who forever sought forgiveness and redemption. He sought to make it right.
- A stubborn man who showed great compassion and tenderness of heart.
- A passionate man who made great efforts to think calmly and coolly under pressure.
- A self-taught man who did not trust academic musings but possessed a keen intellect and valued intelligence and creativity.
- A strong man capable of gentleness and nurturing.
- A man at times consumed by fear and doubt but unshakeable in his faith and determined to do what was right and honest.
My father was too often uneasy in his soul, believing, in his weaker moments, that he had not done enough good on this earth. Not surprisingly, I disagree.
And, now, Dad, that you cannot interrupt me and argue with me, I finally will have the last word.
AND I SAY TO YOU, DAD:
“You were your own harshest critic. You seldom gave yourself the credit you deserved.”
“Yours is a worthy and loving soul.”
“We, your friends and family, are grateful for your life and your many acts of kindness and love.”
“We forgive your transgressions no matter what they were or what you imagined them to be. “
“I am proud to be your son.”
“You were perfectly flawed like the rest of us.”
“Please rest now knowing you have done enough.”
“Please rest now knowing that you are loved and remembered.”
I look forward to sharing my dad’s story of redemption. He was, as it turns out, a most worthy soul: a man who sought forgiveness and yielded to love and understanding. May we all seek the higher gifts, no matter how imperfect our search is…
Peace & Love,