es, it was an old steamer trunk. Yes, it opened with
a creak. And yes, within it, I found a treasure.
I pulled out a eulogy, typed on brown paper
and protected in a see-through sleeve, just as it was
when my father handed it to me 18 years ago. I was in
my attic, in April, sifting through stuff. But of course,
once you come upon old contents of a chest in an attic,
your mind does that heaving fun-house-mirror thing
that indicates the past is paying a visit.
Against my will, I was emotionally regurgitated
to Philadelphia, back to June 17, 1997. My father
was eulogizing his father. “Pop,” we all called him.
Speaking before an assembly in St. Bernard Catholic
Church, my father was a wreck. I couldn’t make out
what he was saying. The sound system was tinny. But
at the time, I figured I didn’t need to hear what he was
saying to know what he was saying. His words seemed
to fold in upon themselves in a single, dreadful echo
that hurdled through an open doorway and out onto
the street where they ran away like fugitives.
I felt I could have easily identified those words in a
line-up down at the precinct. They were bloodied and
guilt-ridden. That’s what it seemed to me at the time.
As I read the eulogy all these years later, I was
shocked to learn my father referred to Pop as “an excel-
lent provider,” “extremely generous,” a man with “a
great sense of humor … and devoted to his wife.” These
things were true, but so were their antithesis, which
went unexamined in the eulogy. Pop could be cruel. He
was an alcoholic and an unfaithful husband, and my
father’s childhood was riddled with land mines.
Like his father before him, my father often repeats
stories, including the time when he was 8 years old and
with his father down by the dam. From high above,
the older boys of the neighborhood were leaping into a
bull’s-eye-sized, pine-lined natural pool.
My father had always wanted a dog. Every-one knew
that. He had asked Santa. He had begged his parents.
On this day, at that dam, his father said, “Go on up
there and jump. Do it, and I’ll buy you a dog.”
“Really?” my father asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” his father said.
My father got down to his skivvies and climbed up on
the dam. He was scrawny, shivering, hugging his arms
to his chest. He looked down at the water. He looked
over to his father.
“Jump!” his father shouted.
My father closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and leapt —
the single bravest
thing he had ever done. When he
rose to the surface, he was the happiest boy in history.
He was going to get a dog. He ran to collect his clothes,
and then he ran to his father. “I did it, Pop! I did it!” His
father looked at him, and — here’s the punch line — he
said, “You sure did. So what do you want on your dog?
Ketchup or mustard?”
He didn’t get the dog. He got a hot dog. I’ve heard this
story my whole life. As a child, it disturbed me. Now, as
a father myself, it horrifies me. Just weeks before I came
across the eulogy, my father told me the hot dog story
once again. He now has dementia. The short-term
memory is gone. The long-term memory is intact. He
told the story, but for the first time he told it for what it
was. “That was the most rotten thing anyone has ever
done to me,” he said.
In April, in my attic, as I read the eulogy for the first
time, I realized how tender, how extraordinary it was.
With his father’s coffin in front of him, my father
chose not to wade into the vacuum of regret and bitter-
ness. When he stepped to the lectern, he left the bag-
gage behind and declared asylum from past injuries and
injustices. To be precise, he embraced the true freedom
found in forgiveness. He chose to praise the man who
raised him as “an excellent provider” and “extremely
generous” and who had “a great sense of humor”
because his father was that man, too.
“Any ill feelings should be buried here today,” my father
said. “He was ‘Pop’ — a very simple and sensitive man.”
The eulogy remains tucked away in my steamer trunk.
Mercy is my treasured inheritance.
Felix Carroll is the executive editor of
the story of a son
IN A CHEST
By Felix Carroll