[Below is the tribute speech given at my husband’s Celebration of Life service. Rather than try to provide the highlights, I have chosen to present it verbatim. Note that it is fairly lengthy and still does not touch on all the points I would have liked to share about my husband. It is difficult to reduce a well-lived life to a few short paragraphs, but I believe this gives you a sense of the kind of man he was. ~ CheriG]
First, I want to thank you all for coming to A’s Celebration of Life. We are humbled in knowing how he touched the lives of so many people. A special thank you to those who helped put this event together – there are far too many to name all of them individually, but we have been blessed with organizers and list makers and doers, people who’ve donated their time and their talents to make sure everything came together for this night. I especially need to thank my cousin, P. She not only helped plan venue and menu and decorations, but spent the past few days playing chauffeur, personal shopper, and general to an army of volunteers, and then graciously opened her home to a large group of women to craft and cook. As my former Maid of Honor, she both orchestrated the start of our union, and our temporary separation.
P tirelessly researched venues until A forced this one on us because no matter how many places she looked or how many dates she checked into – this place, on this date, was the only one that worked. We eventually decided he wanted to be outdoors for this because he became restless when he was cooped up inside too long. This date is fitting, as well – yesterday being exactly 2 months since his passing, and tomorrow being Father’s Day. It really made sense to me this afternoon as I finished getting ready, however, when I realized this is the U.S. Open weekend.
Having a remembrance such as this to honor his life rather than mourn his death was what A wanted – although he would have hated being the center of attention. Following his brother’s funeral nearly two years ago, A later gathered with several of his closest friends. They spent the evening reminiscing and laughing about all the mischief V often got into. (And boy were there stories to tell!) Later, on our drive back to Florida, he talked about how that evening – that one night – did more to heal him than all the crying and grieving he had done, and he went on to say “That is what I want when I die. I don’t want people sitting around crying and being miserable. I want them to laugh and remember all the good times.” Although I know he never expected this gathering to be happening so soon afterwards, here we are… and we are following his wishes.
You have also likely noticed that many of us are not dressed in traditional funeral attire. Instead we have chosen to honor A’s wishes by dressing for a celebration… We are celebrating the man he was and his legacy. If you ever really knew A, you would understand this is not disrespectful or inappropriate, this is making a choice to focus on the good times, and in doing so, truly begin the healing process. And that’s what tonight is about… healing.
I’ve been hearing repeatedly over the last few months how A was a great guy, one of the good ones, and “the man”. He was a teddy bear who had no indoor voice at all, even just upon waking at 6 a.m. He was a natural-born athlete who as a teenager was invited to play basketball with a Greek traveling team. He was a loving, giving, romantic wrapped in a loud, energetic, pushy, sarcastic exterior. And he was the love of my life…
For those who don’t know, A was born in Greece, coming to the United States with his parents when he was 3. He sometimes spoke of being made fun of when he got to school because he didn’t yet speak English very well. In retrospect, it seems those memories of being excluded and ridiculed greatly influenced who he later became, because he was a protector of those who couldn’t defend themselves, he often rooted for the overlooked underdog and he was very conscious of those who were left out. And he had no tolerance for injustice or mistreatment.
A was generous and giving, and he had a big heart. He often gave all that he had to help someone else, often at his own expense – and he made sacrifices so others didn’t have to. He did this time and time again, even when his efforts weren’t rewarded or even acknowledged.
He truly was one of the good guys and I can name at least three distinct times where he helped a stranger in need in an extreme way. Twice, decades apart, he pulled accident victims from the wreckage when their cars were in danger of catching fire, and most recently, he helped an elderly gentleman out of the water when the strong ocean waves had him too weakened to stand and in danger of drowning. In these instances, he would do what he could, wait for the professionals to arrive and then quietly go, never expecting, wanting, or waiting around for credit.
He helped in smaller ways every day, as well. He constantly checked the air pressure in my tires before I left for work in the morning, and made sure the engine was running smoothly. He would run to hold the door open for an elderly woman who was struggling with it. And he was always cracking jokes to make everyone laugh.
In the last few years, our home had become the after school and weekend hangout for our son, D, and his friends. They would often consult him if their cars weren’t running right and would talk with them for hours about college or professional sports. And if they stayed through mealtime, he would get in the kitchen and whip up something for everyone to eat. He had become a substitute dad for some of our son’s friends who weren’t close to their own fathers.
He was protective and caring. I remember one time back before we were married, his sister asked to borrow A’s TransAm. He had plans to go play football with some friends at the local high school that day, so he told her “no” and then went to take a shower. When he was out and dressed, he began to look for his keys. I told him M had taken the car, but he didn’t believe me. He ran outside to look, and sure enough it wasn’t in the driveway. He was unhappy, to say the least, and punched the garage wall, leaving a fairly big hole in it. He decided that I should drop him off at the football field and go back to his house to get his car, as he figured she should be back by then. But when I got to his parents’ house, M was there, but A’s TransAm wasn’t. She told me she had gotten into an accident. My eyes went wide and I blurted out “He’s going to be SO mad!” When I returned to the football field, A ran off the field with a quizzical look on his face because I wasn’t driving his car. So I very hesitantly said “M got into an accident and crashed your car. She skidded on the wet road and took out a fire hydrant”. I was fully expecting him to get angry, and waited for a slew of curse words. Instead, his first words summed up exactly what kind of man he was – “Is she OK?” At that moment, he didn’t care that she had taken his car without his permission and he didn’t care that it was totaled. The only thing he cared about was whether or not she was hurt. (When he learned that she was fine, he was naturally still pretty upset about his car. But his initial response was to make sure his little sister wasn’t injured.)
A was also a practical joker, and a master of the wisecrack. It took me many, many years to finally not be shocked or hurt by some of the things he would say. (My kids grasped this concept well before I did, probably because they share the same gene.) He walked around with an entire repertoire of songs running through his head, many with questionable lyrics – some he would intentionally change, and some were simply misheard.
He was also the one of sweetest men you’d ever meet, although he kept it hidden from most people. But if you were one of the lucky ones – the ones he loved and shared his heart with – he was generous with his praise and affection. He gave us all nicknames such as beautiful and gorgeous (and handsome in D’s case). We would hear this every day. When our daughters called home from college, he would answer the phone with a smile and a “Hey, beautiful!” And he was genuinely happy to hear from them.
He lived for his children. I remember the day K was born. He didn’t grow up around kids the way I did, and he had never held an infant before that day. But when they handed him that squalling little ball of hair, he just looked at her with such love on his face. And boy was he mad when they made him give her back for awhile! Then A.M. came along, and he looked at her with that same look. And now he had two little beauties who had Daddy wrapped around their fingers. When I was pregnant for the third time, he would say that he wished for a boy, not because he had to have a son for his family to be complete. He wanted a son because, in his words, “can you imagine how lucky he would be with two older sisters like the girls?!” So when D was born, A looked at him with that same look of pure joy.
Now he may have gotten angry with each of them at times. He may have raised his voice. And he may have lectured them a time or two. But his kids never once had to question if they were loved.
If you hadn’t already guessed by looking around here tonight, A also loved the ocean, and the beach was his refuge. He fell in love with Hawaii while we on our honeymoon, so much so that when we were sitting in the Honolulu Airport waiting to board our return flight at the end of 10 days, he turned to me and said “Let’s not go back. Let’s just stay here.” I laughed it off, thinking he had just been enjoying the vacation a little too much, but he later made it clear that he had been serious and if I had just said the word that day, he would have turned his back on his life here and stayed. Just… like… that. Hawaii never lost that draw for him, and we eventually ended up moving there in 1996. We stayed for half-a-year and loved it. He worked during the day and would spend his weekends and evenings at the beach with the girls while I worked at night. We made some incredible memories there, and we always meant to get back, but sadly, we never did.
A began working for his father in the HVAC business from a young age. He told of being awakened early on Saturday mornings and going to work with his dad, often just sitting or standing nearby to hold a flashlight while his father fixed someone’s boiler. When he graduated high school, he joined his brother in their Dad’s business. HVAC was not his dream job, but he did what was expected of him, and he was good at what he did.
In fact, he was a great mechanic and could troubleshoot with the best of them, but in addition to his technical skills, his personality and charm were also good for business. In fact, he single-handedly increased sales with one small South Florida business from $300,000 to over $2 million annually in just one year’s time, mostly because he could easily gain the trust of potential customers. He was trustworthy, and honest, and reliable – traits that are difficult to find almost anywhere today, but nearly impossible in the trades in South Florida. But although he was successful, he was unhappy and unfulfilled, and he wanted something else – golf.
Golf was his passion, and it brought him a great deal of pleasure and pride, so more than 8 years ago, we made a decision as a family, and he quit his job to pursue a career as a professional golfer. It was a dream he shared with very few people for fear of ridicule and discouragement, likely flashbacks to his childhood. But the kids and I supported him, which was all he needed. It was difficult at times. Sometimes extremely difficult with a family of five and only one income. But as hard as it was financially, it was one of the best decisions we ever made as a family. He was much happier doing what he loved. Despite all the roadblocks and potholes and speed bumps on his path to becoming a golfer, he remained driven and passionate about it.
Now although that dream never came to fruition, and you might consider it a failure, I look back on it as a blessing. Because he was working from home, not spending 40… 50… 60 hours or more out in the field, we all got to spend more time with him. He sort of became a stay-at-home “Soccer Dad” and would drive the kids to school in the mornings and hang out with them in the afternoon.
We got to eat most meals as a family, usually prepared by him. He would go to the park with the kids, or fish with D at the jetty. And he would talk to them. Now my kids will joke around about how “Daddy didn’t talk… he lectured.” And he could talk about a subject long after we wanted to listen sometimes, but talk he would – about growing up, about his dreams and theirs, about what to expect from life, and how to treat people. They would discuss aliens, or The Matrix, or ancient history. I’m fairly certain there aren’t a lot of children who can say they had as many conversations with their father, as our three had with A.
So while golf never brought him fortune or success, it brought us something much more valuable, something you can never have too much of, something impossible to ever get back once it’s wasted – we got his time.
If there’s a message you can take from A’s life – remember to tell those you love that you love them. As often as you possibly can. Spend time together doing things you both enjoy, or things they enjoy. Make concessions. Make compromises. Make love. Take turns. Take a long walk. Take a long trip. Spend a day driving around with no destination in mind and discover someplace new. Have deep conversations. Have silly conversations. Sing offkey. Make music. Make memories. Don’t put off doing those things you want to do – do them today.
And take pictures – take lots of pictures. Even the ones you think came out horribly. Because looking back through old photographs, some of the best ones are the candid shots with someone being silly, or looking really, really bad. You’ll look at each one and remember the story behind it. And it will bring you such comfort. But most importantly – please… live each day to its fullest, because you are never promised a tomorrow…
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