December 05, 2014
Words for my father
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

My father, Eusebio Leo Rodrigues, died last month at age 87.  He was a professor of English at Georgetown for 26 years.  A hard thing about death is that, for all that one wants to stop all the clocks, they keep ticking away.  I spoke at his funeral mass on Wednesday, but I'd like to commemorate him publicly.  So I'm publishing my remarks after the fold.  It feels strange to post something so personal, but my dad always loved reading this blog. Indeed, one of my first posts mused on my going into the family business.So this one's for him.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  For my father, the word was perhaps the most important thing.  It’s impossible to sum up all my father has taught me and given me with words.   But I am going to talk about 2 things today: Words.  And love.

First, my father was a writer.  He had a writer’s belief in the power of words.   “The verb is the muscle of the language,” he would tell me.  And “there is no writing, there is only rewriting.”  While growing up, I would bring him my school writing assignments for comments.  He was merciless.  Every white space on the page would be crammed with red ink.  He would tighten my grammar, challenge me at every turn, question my word choice with a scrawled “Why?” 

Why? was a favorite question of his. 

The back and forth could be incredibly frustrating.  I honestly think it never even crossed his mind that he might cut me some slack because I was young.  For him, the writing was what mattered.  Writing clearly and powerfully, without sentimentality, laziness, or cliché. The passive voice was a special bugaboo of his. 

 For my father, language was a thing of beauty and of joy.  Think of a chef testing a sauce and pausing to take a mental inventory of spices before selecting just the right flavor.  A golfer considering between two clubs, weighing the wind and the terrain.  My father was that way with words:  a master craftsman intent on selecting precisely the right tool.  For my father, words mattered.

Some of you know that I flew up to Maryland shortly after my father went into the hospital, ten days before his death.  He was still in the ICU, and when I arrived things looked grim indeed.  Last rites had been administered.  I did not think that I would ever get the chance to speak with him again.  But my sister Esme stubbornly refused to give up hope—and she was right.  Sunday morning my father was much better, beginning first to nod in response to questions, and then to speak.  I told him how my family back in Georgia was doing: my husband, our three children.  He nodded, and then croaked out a “Henry?”  He always asked after the dogs.

He slept a little, and then talked about writing. He said I was a good writer because of my mixture of English study and law training. I told him I was a good writer because of him.    

Dad was quiet.  He said he wanted to think. 

About what?  Life.

What about life? 

Life goes on.  Art endures.

Then he said "problem." He said he wanted to think about the problem of the meaning of life.  I teased him, saying I'd give him an hour to think it over and get back to me. That people have been thinking about that particular problem since at least the ancient Greeks.

Then he said "to love". That's the answer to the problem of the meaning of life. I turned to wipe away a few tears.  I was thinking of way back, when there was a dog one of our neighbors kept out for hours and hours.  It would bark and howl. "It is not loved," my father said of it.  And that explained everything.

I've anticipated this moment for years, as my father has declined in health--it always seemed impossible for me to imagine a life without him here.  But of course he is still with us.   He was with me while I sat down to write this remembrance—which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write.  He suggested that I change the sentence “last rites had been administered” to avoid the passive voice.  I told him that the “last rites” phrase was what gave power to the sentence, and so I would lead with that.  He shrugged philosophically.  For him, what always mattered was that I could articulate a reason for my choice.  That I had an answer to his favorite question.

I’ll close by calling attention to the inscription on your prayer card.  My father chose it as an epigraph for his novel.  The quotation is from John: God is love. Most of all, what I think my father would tell us is that the Word is God.  And God is love.

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