My father passed away in Trinidad on Monday evening ( November 19th) at the age of 81. We had a complex relationship in some ways and yet a very simple one in others. He was cremated yesterday after a really beautiful service in which all his children who were present gave a short eulogy. The church was packed with everyone from dignitaries to simple folk who traveled long distances just to pay tribute to a man they only knew by voice from his morning radio program. This weekend was the first time in a long time that most of his immediate and extended family came together in love and sadness. I also met my older brother from the UK for the first time which was wonderful. It has been a week filled with tears and with the joy of experiencing family once again.
Several people have asked for a copy of the eulogy I delivered which I wrote in the wee hours on the day of the funeral while drinking a Carib beer which was one of his great joys in life. I am including it here exactly as it was written on my tablet in Central Trinidad while staying over at Sam’s home so I could get to the funeral home visit in time that morning. It is very personal but it is also my tribute to a man whose greatness I never fully appreciated as a child.
I start with a fragment of a well known poem by Dylan Thomas. ..
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– My father never went gently in anything he did. Whether it was fighting for facilities for his students or as a patriot who never remained silent in the face of injustice or political wrongdoing whichever government was in power. As a school principal he dedicated himself to ensuring that students at Couva Government Secondary School had access to the same quality of education and facilities as students in prestige schools. He was a disciplinarian as thousands of students and his kids can attest but he did it because he believed in upholding the same standards he was raised with despite knowing he often flouted those same standards in his youth.
– his passion for his country was remarkable. He loved T&T and was always disappointed that we couldn’t just live up to the potential he knew we had. That we couldn’t just cast race aside and be an example to the world of how a people working together could achieve anything. Nothing angered dad more than seeing how greed, corruption and apathy have held this country back. When he embarked on his radio career it finally gave him free rein to express his views and ask questions – retirement was never for dad. He always had to be moving forward. Typical of his egalitarian view of the world he would travel to work in route taxis and insist on shopping at the Chaguanas market not because it was most convenient but because he wanted to hear the views of the average man and woman on the issues affecting this country – a practice our politicians might want to take a page from. An eighty year old man with cars at his disposal and fancy supermarkets he could visit choosing otherwise because he respected the views of the common man. That is the stuff he was made of – that is the legacy he leaves his children.
Dad was immensely Proud of his family and the family name often to the puzzlement of those of us in the younger generation who, quite frankly, having grown up in relative privilege, didn’t get what the big deal was. Many of us do now and my cousin Peggy who lives in New Delhi drew on that rich history in creating her book Jahajin.
Dad also had a real sense of place and his attachment to his hometown of Couva was legendary. To hear him tell his stories was to hear the stuff of which legends are made – of Couva as a wondrous land of adventure in which the chief protagonists were knights like dad and his valiant cohorts. ..men like the late Dr. George Dixon and Desmond Baxter. I suppose in a sense they really were because I am not sure we will ever see men like them again and the world will be a sadder place for the loss of that incredible generation.
– Dad leaves behind 5 children. Four of whom were fortunate enough to experience him as a parent. His role as father has, I am sure, left different memories with all of us. My brother Victor , who is very little like me experienced dad through sports and adventure and, though he is unable to be here from Toronto through circumstances, left a touching comment on my Facebook wall responding to my announcement of Dad’s passing…He gave me permission to read it here:
“I Loved him so much. My childhood memories of him have flooded my mind. When he stayed with me in Toronto we said so many things (all good) , that needed to be said. He Loved you Vern. And I will miss him so much. The tears have not stopped flowing. He was always , in my eyes, bigger than life. No one will ever understand the connection we had Unless you were on that Cricket field in Marabela when he deliberately got out to protect his Son ( he knows what Im talking about) , THANKS DAD.. I spent my childhood on the Couva river where your ashes will be spread, I think sometimes I left a part of me there , my innocence , my wonder of life. DAD , I ALWAYS LOVED YOU AND YOU KNEW THAT. LONG LIVE THE COUVA BOYS !!’
-For my part, if you asked me what my childhood memories of dad were you would get a flurry of answers.
Weekends spent at the clubhouse of Gilbert Park listening to dad ole talk or watching a cricket match – something I will never get to this day – at the Sevilla Clubhouse pool with Mom, dad and, inevitably Uncle george and Auntie Brenda, drives to Tortuga so Dad could proudly show us the old church and the plains of Caroni stretching out before us, playing with Victor outside drinking establishments in Couva as dad sat inside drinking his Caribs and loudly giving his views on politics, going for oysters by Couva market or Marabella, sereptitiously eating pig foot souse knowing that our Ajee would not have approved…so many memories I can’t begin to describe them.
I was probably not the sort of son dad would have ideally wanted, bookish, a dreamer, not the least bit interested in sports but interested in music and poetry- my brother Victor was all those things so that saved me – but dad loved me just as much and accepted me for who I am. He was proud of me as he was of all his kids. I spent much of my childhood puzzling about dad and a little embarrassed. Wondering if I had been dropped by aliens into the most unlikely of places. It was only as I got older and perhaps wiser that I saw, as do most people, we were not as different as I had thought . .Many of the things I am today, my ambivalent attitude towards authority, my lack of regard for what people may think of me when I know I am speaking the truth, the unbridled pleasure i get in going to Felicity for oysters with my friends, the knowledge that everyone has a fascinating story to tell – not simply the powerful and wealthy- the firm belief that we learn from listening and not from talking, my passion for news and politics – spawned from a childhood with dad glued to local radio and the Beeb – they make me who I am and they are all Dad pure and simple. I would not be a journalist today were it not for him making me truly believe in the importance of knowing what is going on around us and that what is said by those in power – to co-opt Cole Porter – ain’t necessarily so. (Note – as my friend Clay pointed out I got the attribution wrong – it is Ira Gershwin not Cole )
In some ways perhaps I was too much like dad – and I never thought I would find myself saying these words – in recent years we didn’t stay in touch as often because I was doing what I was doing and he was doing what he was doing. I knew what he would be thinking about any issue and I probably thought and said the same thing on camera. People think we fought and yet we never did in my adult life. There was just an innate understanding that I knew he loved me unconditionally and I loved him in exactly the same way. It was as if he existed within me and that was enough. Sadly, of course, it is never enough. I wish I could stand in front of him now and talk to him in person and tell him again how much I love him but all I have now is that Big Vernon I carry inside of me. There will always be a Big Vernon and a Little Vernon ( a family name I used to resent as a kid but embrace now) .
Many people have told me Dad was larger than life and i didn’t understand what they meant but I do now. In one short human lifetime he created two families that will now forever be one.
You married two incredible women, Dad – my mom Ida and Myda ( a phoenetic choice that must have caused a problem or two) , you brought five kids into this world who despite our quirks are the sort of people you would want to change the world in whatever small way. You spoke out against injustice and forwarded education not just in Central Trinidad but nationally. Just as you admired what Ajee and Nana achieved we are now left to marvel at what you achieved and mourn the fact you are no longer with us. I know all of your kids thought you would outlive us because you seemed strong enough to last forever – I am so sad we were wrong.
To quote one of your favorite songs Dad…Last Farewell as sung by Roger Whittaker – For you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell.
Farewell Dad. I know you are out there looking out for all of us. I love you.