Earlier this month I delivered this eulogy for my dad and hero, Stephen Robley:
This may seem like a strange way to begin, but I want to say that my dad was — if such a thing exists — the ideal candidate to be given a diagnosis of incurable cancer.
Don’t get me wrong. I would take the illness away in an instant if I could, give he and my mom the last seven+ years of their lives to live a different way, going on vacations and enjoying their retirement outside of hospitals and clinics and infusion centers and doctors offices.
But all we have is what is, and what happened.
You know that saying “test your mettle” — to show your true character in trying times — when I say my dad was an ideal candidate for cancer, it’s because he possessed qualities that helped him deal with the impossible without the disease changing who he was or forcing him to compromise what was most important to him.
My dad’s death definitively proved to me that he is the man I always thought he was.
So the first of those qualities: toughness.
Physical strength, yes. He could sand the side of a boat for a billion days straight, skip dinner, work in the dark until his eyes were blurry and his hands were bleeding, and he’d just be getting started.
But his real toughness came from strength of spirit, which he revealed in full when his body was at its weakest. The first time I saw him being moved by a crane in the hospital, because he’d lost the use of his legs, I started crying. He looked at me tenderly, but also with determination, and said “it’s okay.” Simple words, but his eyes spoke the rest: “This sucks. But I AM okay. We’re moving forward.”
“Moving forward” brings me to the next of my dad’s qualities on the list: dedication and determination.
I’ll never forget when he told me about the tests he took to get into Special Forces. Besides whatever feats of strength or combat skills he probably had to demonstrate, there was a test — and the way my dad explained it, this particular test was make-or-break — and it had dozens of scenarios like this one:
You’re on a mission when your teammate gets wounded.
You can take him back to get help;
you can radio for help and stay with him;
you can radio in his position, and then move on to the objective;
or you can just leave him and move on to the objective.
If you went back or stayed put, you failed. The only answer is forward. I laughed when my dad told me that story. Suddenly everything made sense.
The man was dedicated: dedicated to my mom, his high school sweetheart to whom he was married 46 years.
Dedicated to his work — commuting to Boston by train every day, working long hours, and still coming home with the presence and energy to spend quality time with me.
And dedication to a task — any task, because my dad could NEVER do anything half-assed. Everything had to be perfect, and you never quit until it’s as good as you can get it,… at least as good as it can be before mom puts her foot down and says, “enough already.”
In his last years, in spite of his pain and constant chemo regimens, my dad was determined to fix up two old boats and get them in the water. He succeeded. And he was perhaps most determined to put in a new kitchen and make sure everything was set and ready in my parents’ apartment in Maine, preparing for the day when my mom would live there without him.
And that brings me to Family: his dedication was most evident when it came to family.
I already mentioned how long my parents were married. But it really hit me the other day as I was scanning pictures for a slideshow. I flipped over a high school picture of my dad that he’d given to my mom, with this note written on the back: “To Joanie, a real cute girl and a sweet kid too. I love you forever, Steve.”
“I love you forever,” he said. And he did.
He loved his family and was dedicated to his family. Back in early October, when he knew he’d lost his legs and couldn’t sail — or walk for that matter — he said to me: “I don’t need a boat. I don’t need my legs. All I need is my family.”
I thought of Esmé, the granddaughter who he adored, and how Steve Robley, the mighty Green Beret, was really a gentle lion who’d rather spend literally hours at a time coloring or playing Candyland with Esmé that doing anything else.
In his final 24 hours he had a pretty rapid decline, but he was holding out to see Lauren and Esmé, who were driving down from Maine. When they arrived, he woke for the first time in many hours. He opened his arms wide, hugged Esmé, gave her a kiss, held on tight, and said “I love you, Sweetpea.”
Those were his last lucid moments and his final words. For me, there could be no final words more fitting.
The last quality I want to mention about my dad is principle. Anyone who knows my dad knows that he is a man of principles: ethical, religious, and otherwise. This was annoying as a kid when the waitress at a restaurant forgot to charge you for dessert and you thought you got an accidental deal, when — no — of course Steve Robley would make it known to the waitress and up went the price of the bill.
But his life of principle meant that he also lived a life without deep regrets. You would laugh if I told you what his biggest moment of shame was as a parent. His biggest parenting mistake. He told me at dinner one time and I almost spit my drink out and laughed “Dad, if that’s the worst thing you ever did as a father, you win the father of the world award.”
I had the strange and rare opportunity to say goodbye to my dad on his first deathbed in 2009. I flew home from Oregon, rushed to the ICU at Kent County Hospital, and we had the kind of conversation you hope to have with a loved one at the end of life. There was love and admiration and pride flowing both ways, and zero gripes, zero regrets, nothing he would take back.
Then my dad made a miraculous recovery, and had seven more years — in which he rediscovered his passion for sailing, met and fell in love with his granddaughter, and much more — and in those seven extra years, which were a gift to me and my family, he didn’t accrue any big regrets, so at his passing the thing that most kept his heart waited to the earth was his wish to see Esmé grow.
A man of principle, and faith.
My dad was what I call a quiet Christian, walking the walk rather than talking the talk, though anyone who knew him well knew his faith was unwavering and deep. He was unafraid to die, only the dying scared him — and he prayed that when it became clear he was beyond treatment, that God would take him quickly. That prayer was mercifully answered.
I know my dad probably had his bouts of anger with God, and that’s understandable. The Bible is full of prophets getting angry with God. Even Jesus on the cross felt forsaken. But I like to remember some of the Psalms that begin with a grievance, a feeling of being bereft, beaten down. But those psalms conclude — like my dad’s life — with praise and the recognition that even in the most difficult circumstance, love surrounds.
There’s a term in sailing to “come about,” which means you change course by tacking across the wind so it catches the opposite side of the sail. As my dad’s spirit begins a new adventure going in that new direction, I’ve been thinking about the term “coming about” — coming “about” — (like, what is something “about?”) — the arrival at meaning.
Humans are meaning-making creatures. We use the symbols and signs we’re given to contextualize our experience. I think that’s not only okay, but what defines the story at the heart of our lives. My dad, of course, is at the heart of my life, and I just want to share two very simple symbols or signs I was given following his death.
The day of his passing was mostly gray and overcast. But as I drove home alone from the hospice facility, the most vivid, beautiful, pink sunset stayed low in the sky right ahead of my car almost the whole way home.
The next morning, Lauren and I woke up and noticed that a light was shining in from the window in a kind of narrow band that almost exclusively shone on both of our faces and nothing else. The light was bright, but not harsh. It was warm, and it felt like it was holding us. The meaning-makers in both of us knew my dad was at peace, holding us, and everything would be alright.
Love surrounds us.
A lot of people might say “he lost his fight with cancer” — and that’s a fine way to put it — but even though his illness took so much from him, my dad never lost the things that really made him the person we loved.
Over the last 7 years, and especially in the last 3 months, he maintained who he was, sustained by his faith in God and by everyone who loved him.
His death was not defeat. His life was a victory, and anyone here who helped him, prayed for him, loved him, it’s a victory we can all share in. I hope you’ll remember him by carrying into your own lives his finest qualities, and I thank you all for celebrating his life today.
The eulogy I read at his funeral is as best a summary of his character as I could muster on short notice, but here I wanted to say something about my dad as it relates to my music:
He was a Green Beret. A football player. An engineer. A builder. Someone who excelled at “manly” things. But there were only two voiced expectations he placed on my early life: NO army, and NO football. If he ever felt uneasy having a sensitive, artsy, and decidedly un-handy son, I never knew it.
I have supporters. I have fans. My dad was something more; he and my mom were my biggest believers. Maybe not believers that I’d someday “make it” (rich or famous). But believers in something more important: that I should pursue and nurture the things inside me that felt most true — and that the following-through on those promises and challenges would offer its own rewards.
Even when my music, lyrics, convictions, political opinions, and everyday choices (like my love of women’s sunglasses) seemed at odds with his values, he was steady enough in his own skin to never see that difference as threatening. His love was unflappable, yes. But differences be damned; he was PROUD of me.
The immensity of that kind of gift only reveals itself in hindsight, but I’m realizing now why I’ve always been okay (in the end) with making unusual, sometimes uncomfortable choices in my music and lyrics — knowing that those choices might alienate one or the other side of the indie-pop coin; it’s because, well, to put it super simply, my parents were proud of me regardless of how many shiny trinkets I accumulated in this life.
I will miss my dad for a thousand more reasons than what I’ve mentioned above, but that’s the musical debt I owe him — which I wanted to acknowledge here.
If you’re interested in seeing some moments from his 69 kickass years (55 of which he spent with my mom), I made this slideshow, set to one of his favorite songs: