My dad passed away three weeks ago, on Oct. 21, 2014 (Tuesday). Here’s the eulogy I delivered at his funeral.
Thank you all so much for coming today. I’m Jennifer Lawson, John’s fifth child.
You might have noticed a box of shortbread cookies with my dad. There’s a story behind that. My dad lived with my sister Ann, her husband Mike and their daughter Kimberly. I went to visit him last Sunday and we went to lunch. I brought him a box of Scottish shortbread cookies, which he loved. In fact, he had a huge sweet tooth and loved pie, ice cream, candy, chocolate – all of it. He wasn’t the tidiest person in the world, so Ann wanted him to keep his treats in the kitchen. But he told me he planned to hide these cookies in his summer sock drawer, where he knew Ann would never look and so they’d be easier for him to access. After he passed away, Ann and Mike found the cookies in his drawer, and the box was open, so he did enjoy a few, but he hadn’t had the chance to eat them all before he died.
Anyone who knew my dad well would tell you he did things his own way and wasn’t one to follow the rules. He was hospitalized a few years ago and wasn’t supposed to eat salt, The hospital taped a sign up in his room reflecting that. Not only did he take the sign down, he used the tape to cover the top of a salt shaker that he took from the dining room so the salt wouldn’t spill when he hid it in his wheelchair. Another time, he broke his ankle while taking some Special Olympics athletes on a ski trip. He broke it severely and it required six screws and he was not supposed to walk unassisted. I don’t think anyone was surprised when he ignored that. I walked in one afternoon to find that he had climbed on a chair and was trying to reach something on the top of the China cabinet. That was our dad.
He was born in Newark, NJ during the Great Depression a few years after his parents immigrated from Scotland. They lived in a cold water flat above a fish market, and when my father was four, his dad passed away. He and his mother took the Caledonia, a trans-Atlantic ship, and moved back to Scotland, before his mom realized Scotland maybe wasn’t the best place for him to grow up. She went back to New Jersey alone and got settled, then sent for him a few months later.
Our dad graduated from high school when he was 16 and worked a series of laboring and factory jobs. He met my mom in July 1950, and six months later he was drafted into the Korean War. He was sent into the combat zone, remaining there 1951 to 1953, working as a HAM radio operator. He never discussed his service, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out he was awarded a Purple Heart for some injuries he sustained from shrapnel and barbed wire.
The Purple Heart meant little to him. He didn’t want to be viewed as a hero because it wasn’t his choice to be in the war, he just put in his time just like every other man of that era. When he was discharged, he was told he’d have to wait a few days for an officer to confer him with the Purple Heart. He didn’t feel like waiting, so he told them to forget it, he was going home to see his girlfriend, Mary Ward, our mother. He started to walk out, but then he was stopped in the hall by an officer who had suddenly made himself available, and awarded him the medal.
The one positive thing about his two years in the army was that he was introduced to electronics, and that ended up being his profession as well as one of his passions. After he was dischaged, he reclaimed his old union laborer job, but noticed old men still doing laborer’s work, and didn’t want to end up like them. He quit his job and eventually found another position at Westinghouse, working as a technician.
He and my mother married, and went on to have four daughters within six years. When my sister Laurie, who is number two, was born, he realized he needed to be a better provider, so he decided to go to college. He enrolled in Fairleigh Dickinson University and majored in electrical engineering, while still working full-time. After seven years, he graduated Magna Cum Laude.
He and my mom went on to have two more kids, me and Doug. In the early ’90s he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and by the time it was detected, it had metastasized into his lymph nodes. But, he got it treated and recovered. Over the next 20 plus years, he had more than 20 spots of melanoma removed from various parts of his body, earning him the nickname Mr. Melanoma in the circle of doctors he saw.
In the mid-90s, our dad started volunteering as site coordinator for the Montgomery County Special Olympics skiing program, something he continued doing for years. He also volunteered at the Special Olympics office, and also worked his way up to key leadership roles within the county’s program.
My mom died in 2006, and it was hard on him caring for Doug on his own, not knowing how to do even basic housework or laundry or even how to manage household finances. All of this was done by our mom. We helped as much as we could. But two years ago, he suffered a stroke and could no longer live independently or care for Doug on his own.
Within the past handful of years, he also had colon cancer, and stomach cancer. His doctors thought he had lung cancer at one point and opened up his chest to find no cancer at all. Then, he became convinced that doctors were just trying to find things wrong with him.
He wrote his memoirs over the course of many years, and in looking at the book recently, I found a quote: “There is no doubt that this melanoma that I have will get me one day, but not this day.”
He was wrong about that. Despite all he went through medically throughout the years, he was in good health recently. When he passed away on Tuesday, he had no pending doctor’s appointments except for one to get his hearing aid serviced. He was maybe a little tired, but was feeling fine. He simply went to bed Monday night and didn’t wake up
The last sentence of the preface of his memoir seems to be a fitting way to close this speech.
“The bottom line is that my life was full, my ambitions realized, and my wife and children were loved by me above all else.”
We loved you too, dad.