Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” My own experience suggests that theater can compete with the message. When a talking head appears on a political show on television, a viewer’s reaction might be less to the words they speak than to the appropriateness of their clothes or the quality of their wig. I’ve long wished I didn’t have to use braille in my public presentations because people find themselves studying my moving hand as much as they attend to my words. I felt this awareness especially acutely when I gave a speech at my father’s memorial service on June 19.
I’ve written here about how my theater friend, Dana, helped me prepare for my speech at our college’s commencement. Later, as a lawyer, I presented oral arguments, most often in New York’s Appellate Division, First Department, the prestigious court at Manhattan’s Madison Square. At those occasions, as well as at public speaking events since, I learned that theater is, if not everything, a big part.
Anticipating my speech at Dad’s memorial service, two factors concerned me. One was how to get to and from the podium without assistance. I arranged for a seat at the center aisle, and before the service began, my wife Laura helped me figure out the angle I’d need to take in order to reach the podium’s side.
My bigger concern was that I deliver my speech fluently and with conviction. I have visually impaired friends who memorize their speeches, but it’s a talent I’ve never acquired. Instead, I braille sequential phrases on index cards to keep me on track and to remind me of the expressions that I’d taken the greatest care to fashion. I’d been practicing the speech and revising my notes into that morning before setting off from Brooklyn to Ridgefield, Connecticut for the service. By the time I entered the Community Center, I was ready.
But fate had put an obstacle before me. There was no stand for the microphone. Someone with vision can hold a microphone while looking at their text, but braille reading requires two hands: one for actual reading and the other for turning pages, or in this case, index cards. With one hand holding the microphone, I wouldn’t be able to turn the index cards over as I moved through the speech.
Before the service began, I tested whether I could speak loudly enough to be heard throughout the hall without the microphone.
“Can you hear me back there if I speak like this?” I called to my brother, Martin.
“How about if you were hard of hearing?”
The service began with a piano piece Dad always asked for, no matter the appropriateness: Ravel’s famous Pavan. Then four friends stood up and spoke about Dad. A nervous moment arrived when we opened the floor for anyone else to offer their thoughts, but as many as ten people, out of the estimated 150 present, summoned the courage to add their words. The pianist performed a transcription of a section from another of Dad’s favorite works, Holst’s Planets Suite. When it ended, my turn came.
I headed for the podium, but got the angle wrong by perhaps a yard. I adjusted fast, but I figured the whole room was watching me go off-course before correcting, a mistake someone with sight would never make. I couldn’t, and didn’t, let embarrassment take over.
At the podium, I took a moment to settle in, physically and mentally. I got through the first of three parts without referring to my notes. It was essentially a story, and I’d pretty much committed the details to memory. To the extent I departed from the text, I did so with what I think were good adlibs.
Finished with that part, I put the microphone down and turned over my Part 1 cards so I could resume with Part 2. I wondered how that card-fiddling sounded over the microphone.
Part 2 praised Dad for the way he’d raised me and for his charitable work, but also addressed a difficult moment for me in his fundraising career. It was a passage that I knew might prove controversial. Worried about offending Dad’s fellow philanthropists, I’d carefully worded it so that it turned out positive. But at a crucial point, I couldn’t bring to mind the exact words of the quotation I meant to use. Because of the need to hold the microphone, I’d given up trying to move from card to card, relying instead on memory, and the quotation appeared on the third card in my Part 2 pile. Eventually, the words came back to me, but I’d stumbled. My brother told me afterwards that what I said at that point got confusing. I felt sure that had I not got confused myself, I would have presented the passage clearly.
Afterwards, having concentrated so hard to work from memory while holding the microphone, I worried I’d looked preoccupied when I meant to smile and forgotten to pause when the audience might have wanted a moment to reflect. I’d meant for tone of voice and gesture to help give emotional context to my meaning, especially in that difficult Part 2.
The speech was as important to me as any I’d given. Did it go as badly as I fear? Probably not. But it definitely didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and planned.
With all this in mind, I’ve decided to post my speech’s original text here, even though I never intended it for publication. For a narrative description of Dad’s life and career, his obituary can be found here.
Whether at the service or now in print, I hope my speech goes some way toward doing justice to the good people who represented the various charitable organizations at my father’s memorial and, above all, to his memory.
I want to begin by giving you an idea of where Dad came from. Last July, armed with information a genealogy expert friend had uncovered, we visited a church in Hutton Rudby, a village in rural northern Yorkshire. Dad’s mother had been baptized there. We learned she was dipped into a shallow stone font no more than two feet in diameter. How much life comes from tiny beginnings. Outside, in the church’s hilly cemetery, we came across the gravestone for Dad’s grandmother and her parents. His grandmother was named Sarah, and the stone’s etching revealed that she’d had eight children. I’d known there were seven sisters and one brother, but I hadn’t thought about them having one mother, nor had I known that she died at the age of 31.
Dad’s own mother, Eleanor, Grandma to Martin and me, began work at the age of twelve as a resident servant in a doctor’s house. I don’t remember her ever talking about those days. We don’t know how she found her way from northern Yorkshire across the River Tees into Darlington, where both my parents, my brother and I were born, but family anecdotes suggest she was spending time there by 1918, when she was sent scurrying across a bridge by a Zeppelin airship flying downriver.
On their marriage certificate, Grandad listed himself as “labourer,” while Grandma was “parlour maid.”
They settled into a small terrace house (“rowhouse” in America) on Surtees Street, which still exists. It’s wide enough only for a front door and the living room’s bay window. Inside, there’s that living room and, behind it, a steep staircase separating the living room from the kitchen. Upstairs, when I was growing up, there were two bedrooms. Later, Grandma had one of them converted into a bathroom. Until then, as I well remember from freezing nights when we visited Grandma and Grandad from London, you had to go to the outhouse at the end of the back yard. The incentive to hold it in was strong. The backyard had a small garden that Grandma cultivated, in addition to that outhouse and a coal shed. The door at the end led on to a cobblestone alley.
Grandma lived in that house until 1993, when she died at the age of 88. By then, Dad had long since left, first moving to that alien city in the south, London, and ultimately to America. But even after the house had long since been sold, he kept going back, maintaining his close connection with our remaining family members and friends. Darlington was always the still point at his center.
I describe Dad’s origins not to set up a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story. That community where he grew up was close-knit and, though far from well-off, not in any obvious way weighed down by poverty. Instead, I’m struck by how Dad had to figure out so much on his own: how to handle himself in a business setting, how to interact with sophisticated colleagues from London and America, and eventually more colleagues from Germany and Spain, Brazil and South Africa.
Dad’s obituary and the speakers before me have given you an idea of his achievements. Speaking as his son, it would feel false to ignore the complicated role of my disability in his life.
I was born with a cleft palate and defective leg and feet joints, all of which were repaired with varying degrees of success. Low vision wasn’t diagnosed until I was four, which in England meant going to a special school for partially-sighted children. For my parents, it meant accompanying me on enumerable hospital, doctor and physical therapy appointments. Despite their best efforts, I have to believe Martin must have wished he’d got some of the attention I did. Then, at the age of thirteen, while we were in the process of immigrating to the United States, I lost my vision.
My parents ensured I adapted. They set a side a room in the house for my enormous tape recorder, reel-to-reel tapes, typewriter, and all the other paraphernalia I needed for school. Many evenings, Dad and I played a modified form of cricket.
But the closeness that comes from caring and being cared for can turn into a protective constraint. For our parents, we children are forever three. When an offspring is disabled, parents can feel their children are forever in need of protection.
You all know what a force of nature Dad was. I had a hard choice. I could either live my life in his charismatic shadow or figure out my own way.
When I was about to start my law career, Mum and Dad suggested I hang my shingle on the carriage house they had on the property they owned at the time. I was touched. Looking back, I wonder whether my decision to settle in New York City might have been like Dad’s to accept Union Carbide’s job offer in London, another world from the Darlington of his family and youth. I wasn’t old enough to witness his emotions during that transition, but I can guess that ambition got mixed up with sadness, a sense of deserting ones he loved. It’s how I felt when I avoided responding to my parent’s carriage house offer.
To his eternal credit, Dad didn’t fight the choices I made, even though I knew he wished I’d taken some different paths. Instead of starting up the corporate ladder, I opted for public interest law. As an aside, a career in corporate law wasn’t an option in the late seventies for a blind law student, a fact I don’t think Dad fully appreciated. But no matter, public interest was what attracted me.
Dad turned to philanthropy after he officially retired, though he remained on Stratcor’s board.
As I go through Dad’s papers, I’m reminded that when helping charities raise funds, he’d talk about the two tragedies in his life: our mother’s death and my blindness. I wonder if you can imagine how it feels when you’re apparently frozen in your father’s mind as a tragedy.
As Dad was cutting the ribbon for Danbury Hospital’s prenatal care unit, he gave a speech focused on how much he and my mother had suffered when I was born. Martin learned ahead of time what he planned to say and urged him not to, but Dad said it was how he felt. Fair enough. But in his speech, he offered no balancing message of how well things had gone for me and them since that time. A big reason why they’d gone so well is the support he’d given me while I was growing up.
The confidence Dad gained while rising from his modest origins could make him impervious to other points of view. Having got so much right, he had every reason to trust his own judgment.
Philanthropy can reveal the best in human nature, but there’s a famous cautionary line:
We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for — I don’t know.
— John Foster Hall, by way of W.H. Auden
For me, Dad was, in effect, two people. There was the loving father, and there was the man who had gained recognition for his philanthropy and enjoyed the celebrity. He genuinely wanted to help. Not just me, but anyone he could, as all of you know. But I didn’t want to be an object of charity. Who does?
For fourteen years, I was a trustee on the board of an organization that worked with blind children and newly blinded adults. It’s a fine organization. However, its fundraising materials struck me as stressing the helplessness of the clients. I talked to the public relations people, who from then on produced excellent material that emphasized the clients’ role in their development and rehabilitation. Many clients go on to help others.
If charities are truly to help, they need to address the question, “What are those others here for?” Not just with regard to the people they serve, but also the people they talk about in their literature.
I knew Dad loved me and that he did so for who I was, however imperfect that might be. But we did grow distant during his philanthropic years. At the time, I thought, so be it. Just as I’d had to go my own way as his son, he was entitled to go his own way as my dad. It didn’t mean we stopped talking. Far from it. Often I also talked to him in my head. What do you think of this, Dad? What did you feel when you left Darlington for London? Now he’s gone, I’ll be doing a lot more talking to him in my head.
After Dad’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he remained as charity-oriented as before, but he allowed me, as well as Martin, back into his life. He talked about his past and his hopes, his feelings and ideas. For the first time, he gave us a coherent statement of his religious philosophy. Although he clung to the hope that chemo would extend his life, he eventually grew into a calm acceptance that his days were numbered.
During this time, I appreciated more than ever how the people at the organizations he supported didn’t just feel gratitude, but also genuine affection for Dad. As adults, so much of our lives is tied up in money matters. Affection may or may not follow. It’s gratifying for Martin and me how genuinely people feel for Dad.
One day at the hospital, Dad told me, “I didn’t make it a success, did I?” I asked what he meant. “I didn’t beat the cancer.”
The day before what would prove to be his last day among us, now at home, he had me summoned to his bedroom. When I reached him, he repeated, “I didn’t make it a success.” I didn’t agree with him, but I didn’t know how to contradict him. All I could do was press his hand. I did a lot of holding hands with Dad those last days, unthinkable until then.
We were really, really fortunate that he still had phases of awareness his last morning, Saturday. Although he could no longer speak, he could communicate through gestures. Putting both hands on the box of Kleenex at his side meant he needed one of us to pull out a tissue and put it in his hand. Remembering how strong he’d been even just a month earlier, it was poignant. Pointing to a portrait of Mum and tapping the empty side of his bed told us he was looking forward to seeing his wife, our Mum.
I’d been thinking hard about his preoccupation with “success.” Did it go beyond what he regarded as his failure to beat the cancer?
That last morning, I crouched at his side and, although afraid my voice and tear ducts would fail me, said, “Dad, you really did succeed.”
I don’t know for sure if it was the last word he managed, but he breathed out, “Yes.”