In Memory of My Dad
On November 12th, my dad, William Frank McNeil, passed away. He was 58 years old. You may see his obituary here.
Yesterday was his funeral. I gave a eulogy there that I have reproduced below.
In Loving Memory
One of the first things people often say to me when they get to know me is, “You’re such a daddy’s girl,” and my response always is, “Of course, why wouldn’t I be? I got a great one.” I hear so many stories of absentee fathers. Quiet fathers. Fathers who don’t know how to talk to their daughters. Fathers who clearly wish their daughters were sons. I never had any of those problems with my dad, and I know he had to fight to make that so.
My dad had a hard life. He lived so much in his far too short 58 years. He worked so hard. Harder than I realized when I was little. One of my earliest memories is of running to the door to meet him at the end of a workday yelling, “Papa Papa,” and he would pick me up and immediately play with me. As an adult now I realize he was coming home from often 12 to 14 hour shifts doing physical, hard labor. He could have so easily begged off as being tired. Too tired for the antics of a 4 or 5 year old. But he never did. He always met me with this overwhelmingly positive response. It was like I was the center of his world.
But my dad didn’t just love me or spoil me. He was also tough on me in lots of little ways that helped me be who I am today. My friends often tell me, “Amanda, you’re so brave.” What they don’t realize is that I’m really not. At least, not naturally. My dad taught me to be. The best example of this is when I went away to college.
When I was 17, my dad took me to tour Brandeis University in Boston and he told me, “This is it. This is the one for you.” And I listened. But when I got there, I had a major freak-out that many first-generation college students have. Brandeis was a top-level, historically Jewish college, and I was there on scholarship. I was surrounded by people and a culture that I knew nothing about. I felt like I was on an alien planet…or at least in Europe. They talked about things I had no understanding of and bonded over going out shopping and to restaurants….and to their ski chalets. When my computer broke the first week of school, I cried, and my roommate said, “Well just buy a new one” not understanding that that was just not possible. I called my dad crying, begging him to let me come home and go to culinary school instead. He told me no, that being a chef was a hard life and physically difficult, and he wanted more for me. He told me, “You belong there, Amanda. You’re smart as a whip and you are not a quitter. Don’t forget our family motto. To conquer or die. You can conquer this.” Then he made a deal with me. He said if I was still miserable by Christmas I could come home. I thought he was caving. I realize now he was just smarter than me and knew I would be happy at Brandeis by then. Oh, and he somehow magically got a computer and sent it down to me.
My dad was not perfect. He had a hot temper when I was young…it mellowed with age. He was stubborn. He would have periods of being very down and sad. He often didn’t take care of himself as well as he should, putting oxygen masks on literally everyone else on the plane before himself (that’s a metaphor, my father did NOT fly in airplanes.)
But. My dad was always willing to admit when he was wrong and say he was sorry. He always tried…so hard. So incredibly hard. He didn’t stagnate. He changed his opinions if given enough new factual information. He was funny. So incredibly funny. His dry wit in the face of terrifying things like a triple bypass is something I strive to live up to. He had a near-magical way with animals. I literally never saw him meet an animal that didn’t immediately glom onto him with love. And he was so incredibly smart. He was able to do insanely complex math in his head…math that would make my head spin if you gave me a high-powered computer to help me do it. He read voraciously at a speed I have never seen anywhere else. He had an eye for beauty. His furniture he crafted were truly works of art.
My dad always told me that my brother and I were the best thing he ever did. That he’d go through everything again just to have the two of us. All he ever wanted was for us to have better lives than he had. To have physically easier jobs. To get to enjoy life more. To have partners who truly loved us. The best advice he ever gave me was to never settle and to wait for your one true love. It was hard in my early 20s when it seemed everyone else around me was coupled up. But my dad’s assertion that it’s better to be alone than to be with the wrong person kept me strong and waiting. And then I met Phil. And I brought him home to meet my dad. My dad was a bit skeptical since Phil is an engineer….and my dad did not have the best experience with engineers in the shops. So he quizzed him with a math problem that usually stumped the engineers, and Phil got it right. And my dad said well, he’s an engineer but he’s no dummy. He was just teasing us though. He sat me down and told me very seriously how much he liked Phil. that Phil clearly made me happy. Happier than I’d ever been before.
Seven weeks ago, my dad came and stayed with us for a week while we got ready for our wedding and got married. Daddy helped me bake my bridal pie. It was the last time we’d ever cook together, after 29 years of doing so, though I obviously didn’t know it then. He watched me marry my best friend. He danced our father-daughter dance with me, and while we were dancing he whispered to me, “I am so proud of you,” and I swear that he meant it more than he did at my college graduation.
There are so many things that I will never get now that my father is gone. I never got to go to a Patriots game with him. He won’t see me turn 30. He will not get to see me pregnant or meet any kids Phil and I may have one day.
My world I live in now is so different from my father’s world. I worry out loud to my husband that no one will know where I come from. And he tells me. You are your father’s daughter. Your father lives in you, whether you realize it or not. You have his sense of humor, his chin, his temper. You are short and stubborn. And incredibly determined. But what I really hope is to emulate my dad in another way.
My dad was a good man, but he was quiet about it. He was never ever prideful. In fact one of the few times he would yell at me was if I got too full of myself. He lived Jesus’ commandment, “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” I think this commandment speaks to more than prayer. It speaks to any good you do. My dad did the right thing because it was the right thing to do, and he never called attention to it. And he was rewarded for it. Just look around this room, and you can see it.
Daddy, in the face of so much hardship and opportunities to do otherwise, you were a good man. And I will miss you every day of my life.