Last year on Father’s Day, this was my Facebook status: There are so many different faces that my dad has worn as a parent. Many of you know the strict, almost mean, dad that reared himself when I was in high school. Many of you know the sarcastic joker who is always giving people a hard time. Many of you know the proud father and grandfather that would do anything for his girls. But today, I celebrate the man who is teaching me to be fearless in the face of whatever life throws my way, to not feel sorry for myself when I’m sick or tired, but to get big, get strong, and to meet the challenge. You know, these are the lessons that he taught me in sports, and now I’m seeing him live them in life. I love you, Daddy, and I’m so damn proud of you.
Little did I know that the next Father’s Day would be the one-month anniversary of his funeral. Some of you knew him, some of you knew of him, but most of you didn’t. As he spent more and more time in the hospital, and even when we brought him home for hospice, I found myself telling more than a couple of nurses and doctors, “This isn’t my dad. I mean, he’s not this sick, elderly man that you see. He runs his dog every morning, he wrestles around, he throws the football in the front yard with us on Super Bowl Sunday.”
When we planned his funeral, we decided that there wouldn’t be a sharing time, just the pastor’s message. My dear Aunt Candy, his youngest sister, read his obituary, but other than that, there were no personal touches. So today, I want to share him with you, to give him the eulogy that I wish I had given him then.
My dad, Allen Lee Builteman, was born in 1938 in rural Oklahoma. He lived for about 12 years in a small town called Yale. Even though he spent the majority of his life living elsewhere, he was always a country boy at heart, and considered Oklahoma is home. I traveled there with him and my mom in 2010 and saw his home, which is still in the family. The garden that his grandmother planted is still growing in the back.
His Aunt Lena and his Uncle Elsie raised him those years in Oklahoma. He worked in the town drug store that Elsie owned and always credited his knowledge about business to his uncle. And since he was the soda jerk, he could make a mean chocolate malt. That was always a treat, when Daddy made malts on a hot summer evening.
In 1955, he moved with his parents and siblings to Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father was stationed after the war. It was there that he fell in love with Marlene Dietrich and her famous “Lili Marlene,” which I sang to him often in the hospital and at home his last few days.
As a father, my dad was extremely supportive of my brother and me, especially when it came to our athletic careers. He coached Derek in pony league baseball and in basketball, even into adulthood. And he cheered from the stands at my volleyball games. It became a bit of a joke that I played volleyball because it was a sport that Daddy couldn’t coach!
But his true love was always basketball. When I was younger he coached church league, but gave that up because it wasn’t competitive enough. It was then that he formed a city league team called The Cherokee. Watching these men, many of whom had played professionally in the United States and Europe, was instrumental in forming my identity as an athlete, which has in turn formed my identity as a person. If there was a game that he was playing, he wanted to win. It didn’t matter if it was a friendly scrimmage. He would say, “If we’re keeping score, I want to win.” Me, too.
Whether it was on the court or in the banking world, or even in his personal life, my dad demanded excellence. As a kid and teen, it totally bugged me. It seemed he was always ragging on me. Nothing I did ever seemed good enough. But as an adult, I saw him always give his best. No, not his best, his excellence. You see, with him, saying you did your best wasn’t really good enough. You had to give your excellence. And if you didn’t, he’d let you know about it.
Let me give you an example: late in his banking career, the bank he worked for hired a new president. To say that the two of them didn’t get along would be an understatement. As a passive-aggressive punishment, the new president moved my dad from Senior Vice President/Manager of their corporate office in Ontario to Senior Vice President/Manager of a small office in San Bernardino. Instead of fighting or complaining, my dad pulled a “Dad Move.” He went after two new accounts: The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the Diocese of San Bernardino County. The Natives and the Church. Go Dad! Those two accounts, plus the few that he had brought with him from corporate, made his branch, the small, crappy San Bernardino branch, the #1 highest earning branch in the company. But that was my dad. Excellence.
Daddy was the kind of guy that never left the house in just shorts and a t-shirt. Casual meant slacks without a crease pressed in, and a polo shirt. As he became more successful in the business world, he started buying custom sewn suits and dress shirts. I always thought it was unnecessary and a little pretentious. But I brushed it off and knew that it was his “thing.” He had grown up poor, and so now he wanted nice clothes. A couple of weeks before he died, though, he told me the motivation behind it all: when he was in junior high, he moved to a new school and was enrolled in art class. The teacher had him be the model for the other kids to draw on his first day. Cruel, right? So he sat up on a stool, on a platform, in the center of the room for the entire class period, kids drawing and snickering. At the end of the class, he found that most of them had drawn him as a hobo because they could see the holes that were in the bottoms of his shoes. “So if you’ve ever wondered why I dress the way I do, there you go,” he told me.
But one of my favorite things about my dad was the way that he loved my daughters. I can’t really write a whole lot about that right now because it’s just too hard. But trust me, it was awesome. Just look at the pictures. You’ll get the idea. And I also need to say that he comes to visit my 2 1/2 year old. Every now and then, she will tell me that Zha-Zha (her pet name for him) came to her room. Sometimes he tells her, “I looooove Mazie!” Another time she said that he told her she is “getting so big!” I believe it. So I tell her, “Well, next time you see him, tell him that Mama loves him.” “Ok,” she says, and goes about her business.
We made the decision to bring him home on a Tuesday morning. After meeting with the hospice folk at the hospital, my mom, my brother, and I went up to his room to visit for a while. We had just learned that his cancer spread to his lungs and he had lost his ability to walk. We shed many tears while he slept, then tried to eat, vomited, slept again. But I will never forget the rush, the absolute, overwhelming flood of love that I felt, looking at him there in the hospital. I literally couldn’t stop smiling at him, even through my tears. In a moment that he and I had alone, he took my hand and told me that his lung cancer was going to be horrible. It was almost an apology. “Oh Daddy,” I told him, “Don’t you worry about that.” I stroked his head while he rested again. I kissed his feverish forehead before I left. He didn’t know his body was shutting down.
That Thursday, he came home for good. He had been off of his morphine and dilaudid for a few hours so he was completely awake. As the paramedics rolled him into the living room, he looked up at all of us, his family that surrounded him, Mom, Aunt Candy, my brother, my daughters, and me, and said to each one of us, “I love you. I love you. I love you all.”
Two days later, he was gone.
When I think of my sweet dad, I think of laughter. I think of country music and cowboy boots. I think of basketball. I think about the Oklahoma Sooners and his love for the city of New Orleans. I see him wearing one of his newsboy caps. I remember running for cover with him, laughing, in the New Orleans rain. I remember his puffed up chest at my college graduation. I remember him holding me when I woke up crying, in my adulthood, from a bad break-up. I smell his ChapStick. I see his crystal green eyes. I watch him do his little hop after fielding a ground ball. I can see him shooting free throws: how he held his hands before, during, and after his shot. And finally, I can see the sincerity in his eyes the last time he told me he loved me.