Remembering Dad

Hi everyone,

At mom’s request I’m sharing the words I shared at Dad’s memorial service last weekend. It feels inadequate, as words do in times like this, but I hope you will get another glimpse of the kind of person that he was.

— Hannah

It was very hard to narrow down what I learned from my dad to five minutes. How do you sum up what someone means to you, when they’ve been there for you for every important thing in your life?  Birthdays and graduations, Christmas celebrations and meeting new babies.

Plus, as Brian discovered, Dad already wrote a version of his own obituary which is funnier and more “him” than anything I can come up with. So let me share a few morsels of it with you:

Mark Harrington Notess, age 1,320 years, died of prostate cancer. He is survived by his oncologist of three and a half years; his dogs Wee Sir Gibbie and Lord Digory; his first wife of 41 years, Elizabeth; as well as by prime numbers of children and grandsons, all of whom enjoy wordplay and strange food to the point of annoying normal people.

Mark was born to Wīġlāf son of Weohstan the Wægmunding and Heiðr daughter of the giant Hrímnir in Sigtuna, Sweden on August 12, 699. Having joined Beowulf’s Band of Thanes as lead guitarist at the age of ten, he rose to prominence by finishing off the dragon that had toasted Beowulf beyond well done. He replaced Beowulf as King of the Geats. [then there is more weird Beowulf and viking stuff…]

After becoming a confirmed democrat, he went a-viking incognito, finally settling in Iceland under the name Olaf Trout Nose. Old Burnt Njal converted him from his settled paganism to Christianity at spearpoint. He found the church service a little dull but amused himself by finding typos in the bulletin.

Mark’s distinguished childhood was characterized by a love of Freddie’s Doughnuts and Bocce Club Pizza, excessive emotionality, and a terror of dentists.

In lieu of flowers, please send little-known cheeses to his children, Hershey bars (plain, no almonds) to his widow, and bags of herb crackers to his dogs.

So many of my memories of dad are ways that he used his unique talents and sense of humor to bring people joy or make people feel special For example, devising elaborate, individualized Easter basket hunts for us as kids. One time he wrote a clue in Tolkien’s dwarf rune script and made me decipher it before I could have candy.

There are so many books he read to us that now, when I read those books to my kids, I hear certain phrases in his voice. He did things like set up a Minecraft server for my cousins to play on; and at Christmastime he made treats like fudge and fruitcake, which he would even mail to people who enjoyed it. I still don’t understand it, but I promise — people actually did like this fruitcake!

My dad used to joke that there would never be a usability engineer as the hero of a romantic comedy. They were always architects or lawyers – some profession that people might have understood. I think he was fond of the self-deprecating joke, but on reflection I think there is a significance to this joke that is worth reflecting on – that life is more than work — and that who we are is more than simply “what we do.”

My dad believed that living a worthwhile life was more than the work he did at his job. He understood tech but loved old books. He loved hiking and cooking and listening to music. He did not think of his life as divided up into “real work” and “hobbies,” but he understood that the things we spend time on and the people we spend that time with reflect what we really care about. He was a role model for me in my life of faith– not because he told us what to do but because he modeled it — all the years, I saw him wake up early to read the Bible, I saw him show up at church, and volunteer, and invest time in his church community.

He had strong opinions but was always willing to listen to people who disagreed with him. He wanted things to be real and authentic. He liked all-cotton T-shirts, and solid-wood furniture. He did not like synthetic fibers, particle board, or nice-sounding platitudes about cancer.

When he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer three-and-a-half years ago, he did not embrace the title “cancer survivor” or cancer warrior.” He knew he was not going to “fight cancer” or “kick its butt.” Instead he took the approach that, knowing he had not that much time left, he was going to spend it in ways that were worthwhile. Those ways included attending support group, “bucket list” travel with Mom, and with us kids, and spending time with grandkids – and writing.

His blog and his book he has written about his experience living with cancer — which will be done one day, I promise — contain so much wisdom about this. Dad’s words on empathy have been useful to me. He wrote:

Ask open-ended questions instead of making statements. Don’t assume you know how I feel or why. Don’t try to fix it for me with advice unless I’m seeking advice. Don’t compare my experience to your own or your uncle’s. Or do so with the utmost caution, seeing if the story you’re telling me resonates with my experience or is different.

I’ve thought about this advice many times since, both when spending times with him during the weeks he was on hospice, as well as finding it relevant in many other situations.

He wrote in his book:

My story is not the happy cancer story many people expect or desire. Meanwhile, I have good company. All of us wish for a day when more people understand what it is like to have a less happy cancer story—to have a terminal diagnosis or to be riddled with intractable wounds to our bodies, our brains, our personalities, our relationships, our livelihoods, and yet to still find encouragement, small delights, humor, even joy in this new-normal, medicalized life we lead. We don’t yearn for people who tell us we look good, who ask us when we will return to work, who talk like cheerleaders, who avoid speaking the “C” word, or who jump out of a pickup truck and pray for us because we have no hair. We yearn for people who will sit with us in our sorrow and loss, and walk with us in the darkness. Joke with us in our absurdities. If this book has in some measure helped build that understanding by telling an alternate cancer story, then it has succeeded.

More than anything I wish Dad was still here to share his own words and perspective with you today, but I am comforted to know that you all have your stories about him, and that he will live on in those stories.