(This was a eulogy I wrote for Robert Dove, my father-in-law. He passed away in May and the family held a memorial service in June. I was unable to attend, but wrote this, which my daughter, Layci Nelson, read. If I can get the video of that I will post it here later.)
Aren’t we lucky? Isn’t this a great day? Isn’t it wonderful, all of us here, all in one place, celebrating the life of Robert Michael Dove. Boots. Our friend, our father, our father-in-law, our grandfather, our great grandfather, our uncle, our great uncle, our brother, our husband, our brother in law . . .
His magic? He somehow had a way of making each one of us feel singularly special, as if we each mattered most in this world. Weren’t we lucky?
My first real memory of Boots was during my freshman year of college. I flew to Maryland during spring break to visit Darla. Boots pulled into Washington National Airport in his long, yellow Cadillac. He greeted me with his booming baritone, I slid into the leather passenger seat and thought, man am I lucky.
I remember that first week, and the constant chatter and noise: Boots calling to his family, and his constant hum and whistle, punctuated by the occasional holler. It was incessant, and also somehow comforting, especially having grown up in a quiet house, where passions were suppressed. Boots lived his emotions out loud. And I remember thinking: Isn’t he lucky?
There are millions of meaningful little stories, ones that spoke to the essence of this man and his compassion, and spoke to the regard with which he held everyone he met. The kind of memories that stick with us forever, peaking around corners to surprise us, like getting a wild card on your final turn.
He worked his way into our lives in profound ways. “I want to show you something,” he would say, and the thought he had put into that something were clear demonstrations of his inner complexity, and how much he truly cared about you. Once, he spent hours rigging up an orange picker to make it easier for me to reach the fruit at the top of his tree. He knew I loved those oranges.
Once, when Darla was a young girl, Boots, who had served for 10 years in the National Guard, took his daughter’s ponytail in his hand and asked: “Dee Dee, do you know how you get in a foxhole?” “No,” she replied. At that, he raised her ponytail and replied: “You lift up its tale.” For the next 30 years, every so often he would just grab her ponytail and say “you lift up its tale,” and they would have the kind of laugh you have when little experiences like that stack up like layers, forming an unbreakable bond.
For his son Robert, it was being able to share in his father’s music and actually play in The Memories with him; for Tim it was Saturday night drive-ins and fishing trips; for Shelly it was a picture of Casper that he once sent her, all colored in and glittering; for Susy it was a Valentine’s Day card after a heartbreak; for Darla it was a surprise 7-11 Slurpee in a time of stress, using every bit of money Boots had in his pocket; for Darleen it was how he told her he loved her “all the muches in the world.” It was Boots trying to revive the family’s frozen rabbit by placing it on the stove to thaw. And it was a million of these moments.
It was the nicknames — his wee, his flea, his weetzie, his pie, his Rob-bob.
Once, Boots and I were sitting together at a dance competition or recital or something, and he looked up at an Exit sign and said: “Do you see that?” He was fixated on it, imploring me to look at it again. “Look,” he said. “E Exit IT. Isn’t that fascinating? E Exit IT! Have you ever noticed that before?” I looked at him like he had two heads. “Look! E Exit IT. I’ve never noticed that,” he said. I didn’t know what that meant, or why it struck him, but it was always a source of great amusement between us. Whenever I was with him, I would find the Exit signs and say “there it is again,” and he would nod excitedly and laugh, and tell me he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t equally fascinated. I was; just not by the sign.
Boots constantly found surprise and joy in ordinary things. I think that’s what always made each one of us feel special in his presence: he could celebrate just about anything, and he did. Weren’t we lucky?
Boots believed in other things — UFOs and aliens. He believed in re-incarnation, describing in detail a point and a place during the Battle of Bull Run where he had previously met his death. I’ve always imagined that life would be far more interesting if we all were lucky enough to believe in the things Boots believed in.
He played the numbers, guessing at the results through a combination of license plates, birthdays and digits he would see in his dreams. He won a little money here and there–money he was quick to give away, spend on more lottery tickets, or use to pay a bill, but he never got rich. He would curse the television, or blame the volunteer who picked the balls when he didn’t win, but I always thought he played more for the hope and anticipation rather than the actual money. Because if his luck was dry at 7:30 every weekday night when those lottery balls were drawn, it was full and rich for the other 23 hours and 59 minutes.
He met the love of his life for a fleeting moment in the summer of 1958, only to run into her again by chance in November of that same year on a snowy day, on a street in Washington D.C. Weren’t they lucky?
He got into the National Guard when he was 16 and he sent money back home to his mom to help provide for his younger siblings. Weren’t they lucky? He survived an explosion in a boiler room, dragging himself out into the snow and managed to save his own life. Aren’t we all lucky?
He was my father-in-law, but so much more than that. My own father grew up fishing as a boy in Montana, and yet it was Boots who bought me my first fishing pole. My father was an exquisite carpenter, and yet it was Boots who bought me my first tools. Thanks to Boots, I forced my own father to do some of those things with me. I wonder if Boots knew any of that.
Some of my favorite moments were simply playing cards, for hours on end, cigarette smoke swirling, a couple of beers Boots always set aside for me. Whenever he got a good card he’d say “Oh, HELLO!”
The Boots I saw was the kind of man who would get down on the floor with his grandchildren to play, yell with them at the characters on TV, help them build whatever they could imagine in their heads, and proudly display the end result in the most prominent place he could find. I was always afraid to let my boys use power tools, but I would come over to Boots’ house and see them with an electric saw or drilling holes and making the best of Boots’ treasure trove of screws and washers and knickknacks my boys would use to accessorize their concoctions.
Once, Joshua was dead set on building a throne, and it was a notion I quickly dismissed . . . but not Boots. Josh built that throne with his biggest cheerleader egging him on. Boots knew how to help, but also how to make the kids feel like the projects were their own. Josh is now prone to make 22-foot dragons, 5-foot 3D castles. His room is a cavern and a showcase for his enormous imagination. It hasn’t escaped me that left to my own devices, I would have squashed Joshua’s creativity, where Boots threw fuel on that beautiful fire.
If I’m honest, there have been times during our lives together that Boots was a better father to my own kids than I was. More than anything, he taught me that it’s never too late. How lucky was I.
From the very beginning Boots shared a special bond with Joshua. He has the same bond with all of his grandchildren, of course, but Joshua required a special guiding hand back in those days. If you were telling a three-year-old Joshua that you were changing the round tire, he would argue with you about whether it was really round. His favorite word, spoken resolutely, was “no.” Boots was one of the very few people who “got” Joshua. He called Josh “my little wee.” I remember trying to call Joshua that a few times, and he would have none of it. That was his grandfather’s special name. There will never be a Dumbledore for Joshua like Boots was, and he always will be. Even from beyond this earth, the bonds Boots built are unbreakable.
Who didn’t feel that bond? When he first became sick, the kids at his crossing guard station made him pictures and cards. You see, he didn’t just direct the kids through traffic and to school, he knew their names, he encouraged them, he teased them, he played with them. He made them feel special. They KNEW they were lucky.
I came over to visit with him after his cancer diagnosis. He had decided he wouldn’t receive treatment. It was just he and I that day. He switched off his movie and put on the Maryland game, because he knew that’s what I’d want to see. He told me what a great life he had. He had his friends and his family and that that’s all a man needs. He told me that he was happy, that he had no regrets. He said: “I’ve been so lucky.” Weren’t WE lucky?
With each recovery Boots found new life and brought new joy. I’ve never seen anyone live their final days with such grace, grabbing each of them in his warm embrace. He bragged to his visitors about the marvels of modern medicine, his amazing wheelchair, the incredible hospice staff, the promise of a motorized scooter, which he wanted to use to race his aged neighbors. He discovered the iPad and Facetime. He would call you just to see how YOU were.
Even knowing each shallow, oxygen-assisted breath could be his last, he breathed life into everyone. All around him were friends and family who looked upon him as someone who was dying, but this was a man who was truly living.
E-Exit-IT, Boots. I think I get it now. It IS fascinating.
He was a plumber and a crossing guard and a painter and a singer. He always said he never had an enemy. He loved his bird Ricky and his dogs Tammy and Muffy and ET and Pommy and Tonka, and they adored him. His eyebrows were like caterpillars and they came alive when he slept, twitching with his dreams; and he could snore the paint off the walls. He believed he was in the Battle of Bull Run and he believed in aliens and he believed he was always one night away from winning the lottery.
But more than that, he believed in us. We were each his Oh HELLO.
Weren’t we lucky? AREN’T we lucky?