I have interviewed hundreds of people during my career, everyone from professional athletes and presidential candidates to the woman promoting a charity bake sale.
This past week, I interviewed my wife.
Her dad — my amazing father-in-law — died early Sunday morning after a two-month fight with COVID and other complications. I sit here now, the day after his funeral, and, man… it just hurts. This was just one good man. Period.
Early this week, my wife and her sisters asked if I would write his obit. I am blessed by God with the ability to do these type of things, and I was really happy to be able to tell the story of my dad. Yes, I know he’s my father-in-law, but he’s my dad too. So I wrote his obituary to tell the story, not of his death, but of his life. My goal was for someone who read it but did not know him to see him as we all saw him: simply the best.
When it came time to decide if anyone wanted to speak at the funeral, my wife cautiously raised her hand. She doesn’t necessarily mind public speaking, but she knew she wasn’t going to be able to keep it together when she talked about her dad, and she wanted something in writing to be able to read.
My wife is amazing at many, many, many things. She’s a great mom, a great teacher, a great cook, a great caregiver. I could give her a thousand titles. “Writer” isn’t one of them.
So I interviewed her. And then I wrote what is at the end of this. The thing about being a storyteller is to know when to get out of the way. I absolutely love speech writing because there’s the challenge of not just coming up with some words to keep people interested but to do so in the voice of the person who’s going to deliver the speech. This can be a huge challenge. It was painful for me to write speeches for the general manager of the electric cooperative for which I used to work, because, well, he had no voice. Not literally — the man could speak. But he was a suit. Suits don’t tell stories. Suits don’t make people feel.
My wife? She can make people feel. Aside from how she made me feel the first time I laid eyes on her, if you know Carla, you know she makes you happy just to be around her. So finding her voice was easy. Combine that with telling stories about her dad and, well, I think this is the thing I’m most proud of in my life in terms of writing. And let me tell you, she absolutely knocked it out of the park in delivering what are truly her words. If you want to watch her, here’s a video. She starts at the 19:15 mark.
When my dad’s dad died about 25 years ago and the family went to clean up his house, we found no fewer than 13 lawn mowers in the shed. No, my grandpa didn’t own a landscaping business, and, if you looked around, you would see he had only one lawn.
It wasn’t even a big lawn. My grandpa was a simple, honest country man from Appleton City, Missouri. Alongside my grandma, grandpa raised my dad, his brother Wilbur and his sister Carlene. And he kept everything.
So I guess my dad came by his packrat problem honestly. If you all wanted to know what medical treatment I or my sisters, Dyan and Sara, might have received in middle school, Dad could go down to his basement and, if you gave him an hour or two to search through the various cabinets and crates, pull out a record from 1987 about that one time I had strep throat or the time Dyan had a cavity.
And to dad, things like this seemed to be vital information, something that maybe the Soviets would have been interested in. I say that because the lengths he went to secure things were, well, hilarious and inventive. If you want to get to, oh, say his mom’s birth certificate, you’d have to find the key to a file cabinet that weighs approximately 5,000 pounds. That key isn’t just hidden under a mat or in the silverware drawer or hung on a key ring. No, it’s more likely wrapped up in an old T-shirt, that’s placed in a toiletries bag that’s put in a Tupperwear container that’s wrapped in a comforter and then carefully tucked away in the box of a chainsaw he bought in 1979.
Dad was funny like that.
It’s not that dad was a hoarder or anything. He just was raised in a time and with parents who understood the value of things. You didn’t just go out and get a new one. You took care of the one you had. Whether it was a garden shovel, which he would meticulously clean until every speck of dirt was gone after every single use, or one of favorite Mizzou sweatshirts, which can most flatteringly be described as “vintage,” dad took care of everything.
He was like that with his family, too. Quietly, constantly, Dad took care of everything. He tended to us with that same kind of care. It wasn’t flamboyant or showy. It was just… dad. Over the past five-plus decades, he went about building a family, finding an amazing wife in my mom and raising us three daughters with a loving consistency that left us always knowing that dad was THERE, that he loved us, that we could count on him.
Yes, dad loved us.
But perhaps not as much as he loved ice cream. Dad absolutely LOVED ice cream. Moose tracks was his favorite kind, but that didn’t mean dad would say no to, well, any flavor of ice cream. If it was ice cream, dad was down for a bowl. There was this time mom, dad, my husband and I went to the Longeberger Basket Factory when I lived in Ohio. It was a bitterly cold January afternoon. Snow was falling on our trip up and the wind was whipping. We toured the factory — my husband was just THRILLED, as you might imagine a man would be when he’s touring a basket factory during the NFL playoffs — and then went to this huge barn-like building that had various shops and stands. When dad spotted an ice cream stand, he was all-in and asked who wanted some. My husband, who had not yet realized the depths of dad’s ice cream addiction, thought he was joking. After all, in his mind, we were all bundled up in our heaviest winter coats, gloves, hats… everything, and the barn wasn’t exactly sealed against the elements. Who could POSSIBLY want ice cream?
That doesn’t mean that ordering the ice cream would necessarily be a quick process. If you knew my dad, you know he never met a stranger and he could talk with ANYONE, ANYWHERE at any time. Ice cream shop clerks, new people at church, random people who happened to be stopped at the same rest area along the Katy Trail while he was biking. You were never a stranger to dad. You were a person he hadn’t met yet. I’ve inherited this from my dad. On more than one or 10 or a hundred occasions, I’ve caught up with my husband someplace or other after a conversation with someone I’ve never met that went on for a long, long time and my husband looks at me and says, “You’ve been Marvin’ it up again, haven’t you?”
Yes, Dad went at his own pace. Sometimes that would drive mom nuts, because it meant that that ceiling fan with the broken light fixture wasn’t just replaced the next day or weekend or month with a NEW ceiling fan. No. Dad had to research his options. Carefully. He had to see if he could find the company that manufactured that ceiling fan, which, by the way, had been hanging in our family room for more than two decades, and see if they sold just a new light fixture. After striking out and researching his ceiling fan options for a good year or so, he relented and got a new fan.
Sometimes ceiling fans just weren’t the priority. To dad, there was God, family, ice cream and Mizzou sports, and not necessarily in that order. Dad loved Mizzou football and basketball, especially basketball. Dad was no technological wizard. My sisters and I tried recently to get him and mom the most basic of smartphones. It didn’t go well. Mom has a new flip phone waiting for her at my house. But anyway, while he was not exactly Steve Jobs, he did know how to use the Internet to find information on any possible Mizzou basketball recruit who was within five years of his high school graduation. When I got married and then my sisters got married, he reveled in having sons-in-law to talk sports with in great depth. And then when my sisters and I started having kids, they just so happened to be all boys for a long while, until our family princess, Audrey, came along. Dad loved talking sports with his grandkids.
Actually, he just loved his grandkids , period. Whether it was taking them out for ice cream, because, well, of COURSE, or playing ping pong or pool with them in his basement, dad, or, to the grandkids, Papa, was always up for some fun. My older son, Joey, was talking to my husband recently while dad fought his fight in the hospital these past few months, and he said how much he ADMIRED my dad. My husband asked him why. “He’s just such a solid guy,” Joey said. “He isn’t super emotional or anything, he’s not flashy about money or possessions, but then he busts out and takes the whole family on a Disney cruise to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. He’s quiet about it, but he’s generous and he cares.” I know all his grandkids, from Joey, his oldest, all the way down to Quintin, his youngest, could tell similar stories about their Papa.
So… here we are. In dad’s church. Dad loved God. It was a typical kind of love for Dad — constant, quiet. Dad never talked much about his faith, but it was deep in the core of who he was. He was faithful in his attendance here, but more than that, he was faithful in God’s love out THERE, out in the world. When I told you about how Dad could — and WOULD — talk with anyone who crossed his path, that was him loving his neighbor. Everyone was dad’s neighbor. Everyone was an opportunity to show kindness and compassion, to reflect the Jesus who was in his heart. In that way, in so many more, dad lived his faith.
And because of that faith, all of us here know Marv is Marvin’ it up in heaven right now. He’s got Peter cornered and is telling him about the beauty of the Katy Trail, he’s telling Paul about his grandkids, about Sara’s strength and resolve, about Dyan’s quiet compassion that is such a reflection of himself, about the amazing woman he shared 51 years of marriage with. He’s giving his mom and dad a long overdue hug and letting his dad know that 13 lawn mowers were, indeed, an adequate number of lawn mowers for a man to have.
So yes, we here are sad. Of course we are. My dad was an AMAZING guy and we will all miss him in our own ways. But we’ll always remember him. A little piece of him lives on in all those he touched. His family, his friends, his co-workers … the ice cream shop guy. So can we all raise an imaginary ice cream scooper right now. Let’s take just a few seconds to be silent and remember a fun memory, something about Marvin Louis Wafel… our dad, your friend, your Papa, your brother, your family member, this amazing man of God.