“What will survive of us is love,” the poet Philip Larkin once wrote. I was a big fan of Larkin in my early teens, when I was writing a lot of student poetry and even telling my family at the dinner table one night that when I grew up I wanted to be a poet. To which my father replied, “That’s all very well and good, but how will you keep a roof over your head?”
Dick Geier was a practical man, a cautious man, a man who would inspect the fire exits when we checked into a hotel on vacation. Just in case. A man who had not one, not two, but three long-term care policies that have served us well as his health deteriorated over these last few months. (Or will, once the claims are approved.) Yes, he was an insurance salesman to the core.
I’m astonished sometimes at our many, many differences. I was never an athlete, as he was, though we later found a bond in tennis. I did not share his enthusiasm for the outdoors, for sailing or hunting or fishing or hiking – and once signed a letter to him declaring that I would never come back to him years later expressing regret about skipping some outdoor activity he had tried to organize for the two of us. (And I never did.) Nor am I a very practical person – why dig up a dusty toolbox when I can just Google “repair shops”? And I certainly did not share his politics, always stalwart Republican.
My passions, meanwhile, were clearly not his passions: for books, for literature, for theater, for New York City.
Over time, I came to believe that my father and I really had nothing at all in common.
Except, of course, for everything that matters.
Our Catholic faith, which has sustained us in our happiest and our darkest moments.
Our family, which he taught by example must take precedence and be nurtured and looked after.
Our work ethic, because nothing lasting can be built without the sweat of our brow.
And our capacity for care, for looking beyond ourselves and our own desires to address the needs of others, and to make the world an even slightly better place — one gesture, one act at a time.
It could be a check written for a parent who couldn’t quite afford St. Gregory’s School tuition. It could be an extra call, or a dozen, to secure a better financial future for a young widow. It could be the decades that he spent caring for my mother, Marie, as Multiple Sclerosis robbed her of her mobility, her independence and sometimes the winning personality that had drawn him to her when they first fell in love.
He was pulled into service more than once, caring for his own mother, my Nana Jane, in her final years, and then for three of his five brothers.
My father was the consummate caregiver, both at home and in the world. It became a calling for him, a kind of vocation, and something that he never once saw as a burden but rather as an opportunity. An opportunity to prove, to himself as much as to others, that we are not alone in this world, that our work matters – however small – that an extra call or a fluffed pillow can sometimes make all the difference.
I see so much of my dad in my brother, Bob, who shares so many more of his interests and skills, and who stepped up in a very Dick-like way over these last few months as my father’s need for care eclipsed his ability to dispense it to others.
I see it too in my family – both blood relatives like the Geiers, the Goetzes, the McDermotts and the Fitzgeralds, as well as our family by choice, such as the Wintons, the Duffys, the Morrises, the Smiths and the Coynes — who have helped reinforce the example of Dick’s life to offer support, and a shoulder to lean on, whenever it is needed. They have truly embodied the message of the gospel of St. Matthew: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
As it turned out, I did not become a poet. I do make a living by words, as a journalist and editor, but with a steady paycheck to keep a very nice roof over my head for myself and my partner, Dennis, a man whom my father never would have chosen for me but whom he came to admire and even to love. (The best caregivers, after all, must be open to change and adapting to new circumstances.)
I have sometimes wondered how my dad acted so selflessly for others for so long, and with such gregarious good cheer. I suspect that he intuited naturally what so many fail to comprehend: A legacy need not be built from lofty titles or artistic masterpieces or so-called great deeds.
That, in the end, what will survive of us… is love.