Good Men: A tribute to my father, Robert Leo Burgess
2018 got off to a rough start for me, as I spent a lot of January with family concerns. My father’s health failed and my mother is also dealing with issues. At the end of the month, I lost my father to long illness and I wrote this note about him on Facebook. I heard from a few people that they had shared it because my note on Facebook about the wonderful father I was honored to have seems like it inspired some good discussions and consideration about what it means to be a father. I’ve slightly edited it to remove some personal points that are not as relevant to the casual reader, but kept what I think was the heart of the piece.
January 30, 2018 – Late Sunday night, as I was watching a Netflix film about funny people and trying not to think about what was imminent, my father passed away after a brief time in hospice.
I have been uncharacteristically silent on social media because I am still processing the loss, which I can only do with words. There was further delay from a paper cut on my right index finger that I gained while filling out the paperwork to release his body for cremation just moments after I arrived at the hospice. I was first to arrive, had driven over in a haze and, at that moment, appreciated the sharp pain of the cut popping my consciousness back into place before I went in to see my dad one last time.
As I sit here in the dark of morning a day later, I am thinking one could say that my father was not a great man. Great men change the whole world in some way. Maybe it’s how business runs in a particular space, how we think about something important or even how we view change and evolution in a broader sense. What I do know about great men, as I’ve known a few, is that they make sacrifices for their greatness and for whatever cause that matters more than anything to them.
That wasn’t my dad. He was a good man.
Good men attend to everything across their lives at some level from acceptably to amazingly. They love their families, they work hard to get educated and then at a job to make sure, as they say, the ends meet. They are far from perfect but their desire to make sure everything across life happens well enough is admirable because they don’t believe in kids getting ignored for a job or constantly needing to be off in their man cave or out with buddies to pretend they don’t have family obligations in real life. Good men make room in their lives for their spouse and their children; the best of them give their family an outsized space.
The good men find balance. They shift gears when the family is formed. They might even seem a bit boring, at times. But, good and boring pays the bills. Good and boring shows up to their children’s recital. And good and boring leaves a legacy of loving memories and kids who adore them.
And, if you knew him at all, how could you not adore my dad? If you found a way, well, too bad for you. The rest of us were crazy about him.
Robert Leo Burgess was born on December 7, 1933, a while before that date was Pearl Harbor Day. The youngest of nine kids, he was shorter than all of the men in the family, which he often attributed to there ‘being nothing left’ when he finally came around. As the baby of the family, he was very loved and received a lot of attention. I feel confident that my father’s passionate commitment to our immediate family came from the constant support and love he got from his own mother and siblings, who might have been compensating for my grandfather being less than affectionate.
Dad was a bruiser and a tough guy all his life, but it manifested much differently later because he was gregarious almost to a fault. He could walk into a room with ten people and they were all his friends before he left it. Now, if you’re reading this, you probably know what it is like to be in a conversation with a Burgess. We talk and talk…sometimes you’d think we just like to hear our own voices (yes, they do sound good), but, really, we like telling stories.
In my dad’s generation, I often say the nuance in the stories and their purpose changes from sibling to sibling. My dad focused on the funny. He was far more likely to tell you a joke than a story. He was always fond of them but, after his stroke a decade ago, he became a veritable sit-down comedian. Everyone nearby was subjected to them and he left most of the many, many hospitals since his stroke with nurses sorry to see him go because he kept them laughing and always had a positive attitude. It could be a problem, though. When we’d tell him, “Dad, that waiter kind of needs to actually go put in the order,” he’d say, “It’s good for his health! I’m helping him!” No one was safe from his laugh therapy. I tried to give him new joke books every year but he stuck to the old faithfuls most of the time, including one-liners that would make Henny Youngman proud. As he became increasingly difficult to understand, it wasn’t hard to listen for the moment when he was going to laugh so you could laugh along with him at the right moment.
My father’s major passion in middle life to late life was reading. He took a speed reading course as a younger man and never lost it. When I was young, he took the bus to his office in East L.A., reading on the way there and back, plus he’d hit the pages during two tea breaks in the morning and afternoon and also at lunch. With that, he’d polish off close to two books a day. Of course, these were not studies on neuroscience or impenetrable postmodern novels; his interest was in mysteries and biographies of pop culture icons. He also had zero interest in retaining those yellowed paperbacks like talismans of accomplishment – he was constantly moving the books he’d read out for the next batch and watching like an addict for the next library sale where books were a buck a bag. In the last year, I was his dealer, hitting all the library sales and used bookshops to round up enough books to keep him reading all day, every day. My Saturday morning ritual was to show him the books I’d gathered all morning in hopes that I’d get approval for more than 50% of them. I succeeded most of the time.
Among the lighter reading, he’d find time for some of his favorite literary authors and I’d bring them over for a re-read. He had an affinity for authors who seemed to write the same book over and over again – Bukowski, Kerouac (on whom we disagreed), Fitzgerald (on whom we agreed), and Thomas Wolfe – his favorite writer. Something about Wolfe appealed to my dad – maybe the overwhelming emotion in his prose, the questing real-life narratives, or the grandiose diction. Whatever the case, he delighted in Wolfe’s work and life, often repeating biographical details like Wolfe’s tendency to write while leaning against his refrigerator or how he died from TB after contracting it from a hobo he met when he jumped a train. A complete collection of Wolfe’s work is among the slim library my dad retained on his small shelves.
His other passion was the silver screen. He was an avid film lover and moviegoer. But he didn’t travel with film into the modern day. His love for moving pictures remained largely in the black-and-white. As a young man, he worked at a movie theater for some time and all those free movies might have developed the habit. He did love to talk about films and one of our rituals for ages was watching Siskel and Ebert in their various formats on Sunday evenings before dinner. Yet, huge swathes of film, and even music were unavailable to him because he didn’t like the performer. All those biographies gave him details about actors, singers, and directors that were lousy to their families, their wives, or their colleagues. After that, he wouldn’t want to see anything with that person involved. I used to tease him about it – “Who cares if Robert De Niro is a jerk? Raging Bull is amazing.” He wouldn’t budge. Even this last Christmas, he reminded me when he heard a Bing Crosby song on our playlist that the performer was ‘a terrible parent.’ Now, I realize this was just an extension of my dad’s goodness; he didn’t want even exceptional art if it came from bad people.
My dad’s passion for the written word on the page and on the screen inspired my own. Despite my love of technology, I followed in his footsteps and studied literature in college. It worked out in the career I have chosen that blends our great loves. While I tell stories in software more often than I do in prose, there is still the structure and the passion to tell a tale that will enlighten, inspire and enrich the life of the reader, here a user. That came from my dad.
The games came from him, too. Dad was a poker and cribbage player but mostly because of the society of play. Winning meant nothing to him; he craved card play for the chance to interact. When I was young, the monthly poker games my Dad attended was a highlight. Most of the attendees were family, my uncles and older cousins made up the bulk of the group, but some old friends of theirs often rounded out the table of freewheeling dealer’s choice. Yes, it was nice to play but it was mostly about the conversation. Dad played so he could tell and hear jokes, share family news, and spend time with his favorite buddies. The poker nights were an excuse to stay connected with family and friends. I see that in my own board gameplay now, that desire to hold on to my closest friends through regular sessions, keeping the creation of precious hours in regular production.
My cribbage memories are mostly of just the two of us playing. He was an incredibly generous player. He’d call ‘muggins’ if you missed points in your hand, but he’d give them to you anyway. This was a reaction to his own father who was notorious in the family for cheating. He’d back-peg and do all kinds of questionable stuff against even his own kids. I’m glad that what my dad learned from that is what NOT to do. I’ve learned well from his example here.
As we have lost so many of my dad’s generation in the family recently, I’ve often thought about how to distinguish the Burgessness of them all. Yes, that’s a word; it needed invention for that last sentence to work. My generation, of which I’m the youngest, know what I mean. There was a powerful sense of Burgessness throughout them all.
What was my dad best at? Sure, there was the humor I spoke about. Yet, there was also a sense of compassion in him that I admired. As the youngest of his family’s generation, I would like to think he was among the most modern with regard to accepting others. If the decades of time in social work taught him one thing, it was compassion for his fellow man and woman. My dad spent a lot of time with people who were facing the worst days of their lives. He had a positive spirit in his heart at all times so he could console, he could inspire, he could help. While neither of us had much use for organized religion, our Catholic upbringing did instill a concern for the weakest in society, which we both extended to tolerance. He believed in the common good and that America was about all people, not just your own tribe. Dad championed the underdog and the weak like all heroes do. I will always admire him for his lack of cynicism and interest in seeing real action over words.
As a father, he was devoted to making sure we had what we needed. He made sacrifices, neglected to have much of any kind of a mid-life crisis – other than briefly listening to more Willie Nelson and Jim Croce than was generally advisable – and was true to our family and his wife. He was not handy around the house; Dad couldn’t change a light bulb. He was certainly no gourmet unless you consider a predilection for peanut butter and butter sandwiches, or Velveeta on graham crackers to be avant-garde in some way. He blew the Santa thing by walking into the house with an Atari 2600 under his arm from Clarks Drugs when I was a kid, but at least he brought the thing home, despite an irrational fear of anything electronic. He didn’t drink, except for the occasional pina colada (of which I’d get a sip!), and never smoked because his own father had shortened his life with both of those vices. His kids are the same way as a result.
Dad would always drive you where you needed to go, pick you up when you were in a bind, help, throw money at a problem (what is money for, anyway?), and console you when things went wrong. Dad was always okay with your mistakes; he was there to help clean them up and get you back on track. Dad was exceptionally good at being supportive and not throwing something in your face when you failed because you didn’t listen to his advice. He never said ‘I told you so,” never wanted to “teach people a lesson”, never wanted to make it hard on someone when they were already down. He was a supervisor at work and I can remember how hard the employees fought to be on his team – they told me so without asking. They knew he was the kind of leader who worked with you and offered guidance, not the kind who obsessed on hierarchy. The masses at his retirement party years later spoke volumes; he was much-loved at work, too.
Dad never made us feel like we were not good enough, that his love had any strings, that his judgment was against us. He was generous with compliments, acknowledged the good things, and praised like no other. Even in the last days before he became largely incoherent, he was telling us we ‘were the best’, expressed his love for us, and talked about how wonderful his grandchildren were. He spoke this way to everyone. He saw value in spreading positivity as often as possible, and in every situation.
Dad stopped walking about a year ago and for most of that time, he was at a board-and-care facility just across the street from my house. I loved the fact that I could look out my front window when I got home from work and see if his light was on to know if I could visit. It was easy to slip over there; the people who ran the place knew me well enough that I didn’t need to sign in. Dad would always be happy to see me. His mind would start clouded and he’d need to get some ideas out of the way; he’d often start mid-sentence as if I’d walked in on a conversation he was already having, talking about the book he’d just read or some detail that was important enough that he returned to it with some frequency (like his brief time on the set of “Touch of Evil” or when he and I met Harlan Ellison, who tried to convince him to kick me out of the house when I commented on Ellison’s car commercials of the time). But once you got past those anecdotes that were sitting on top of his consciousness, you could really talk to him. We had so many good chats about what was going on these days (of course he hates Trump – he’s an awful person) and how the kids are doing (he would cry from joy when we discussed my son’s Eagle Scout rank or my daughter’s exceptional talent as a singer). He hasn’t been at full cognitive power for more than a decade, but he didn’t lose his sense of justice nor his deep love of his family.
I’ve had twenty years to get used to the fact that I would lose my dad one day. In 1998, he had bypass surgery and, in short order, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I thought I was going to lose him then. But he recovered. Then, the stroke hit in 2007 and again, I thought I was going to lose my dad. But he recovered. Seizures, minor strokes (perhaps) and an endless number of falls occurred in the next decade. We went to the ER a lot, each time prepared for the worst. But he recovered somehow again and again. We have had so many extra years to consider that we might lose him, which gave me a ton of time to express my appreciation for him. He met all of that with love. After his stroke, he often couldn’t contain his emotions so I would do my best to express my love with a laugh so he could laugh, too. It worked most of the time.
For me, this was all ‘bonus time.’ I am so grateful for every day of it.
Last Wednesday was the last day when Dad and I communicated directly. After the doctor called me and let me know he recommended that we let Dad enter hospice, I drove out to the hospital and woke him up. He recognized me by my voice, heard me tell him how much I loved him and responded with the same. He could no longer intake water so I used swabs to soothe him a bit, as I had done with my Uncle Bill just six months before. I was reminded to take that moment to express what I needed to, as I had with Uncle Bill. With Dad, though, I remembered how often I’d repeated what I wanted to say. He knew how much I loved him and appreciated him. He loved how I told him that his brother Bill had added to my personality as much as he had. He loved that I acknowledged my Uncle Ed as a similar inspiration in my life. He thought the world of them both and told me I was smart to not just learn from him because he’d done the same and learned so much from his brothers and sisters, even more than from his own father. We understood each other well. I didn’t have to say it all again. I just had to hug him and hold his hand and tell him I loved him.
So, I’m going to revise my earlier statement. My dad was a great man to the people in his life, to the people he helped and befriended – who are legion – and the people who he loved so much. He neglected being great for the world so he could be greater for all of us, those who knew him and, inevitably, loved him.