Dennis Sweat died on September 14, 2010 at the age of 65 – he was my father. He had Stage IV Small Cell Lung Cancer – he’d smoked since he was a teenaged boy. I remember everything about May 19, 2010 – it is the day that I received the call from his social worker explaining that he was at a local hospital in Maryland and with a prognosis of less than six months to live. Everything in my life came to a grinding halt and I am forever changed. I’m the oldest of three daughters and I knew when I was in hospice with my father day after day that I would speak at his funeral. The words didn’t come until the night before the funeral. They floated around above me, just out of reach, taunting me but I didn’t worry. I knew they would settle around me when I needed them most and they did.
Here are my words:
Good afternoon and welcome. Today, my sisters: Joy and Terri, my nieces: Octavia, Brianna, Emmy and baby Vivian, my daughter: Bryton, and my dear mother: Mary Sweat – would like to thank each of you for coming to celebrate the life a man who meant so much to us – Dennis Sweat. We called him many things in our family – Dennis, Grandpa, Pop-Pop, Den … it was ALL LOVE.
Invariably when I talk about Dennis people interrupt and ask me ‘is he your REAL dad?’ because it wasn’t the norm to go around calling your REAL father by his first name. I explain that MY father said that my sisters and I shouldn’t respect anyone because of their title rather that respect is earned as a result of your actions – PERIOD. My father told us we could call him whatever we wanted – within reason of course – we didn’t have license to go get crazy with it – he wasn’t stuck on a name. I saw that opening and I went with it – Dennis it was and we ALL called him that. Unbeknownst to each of us, my father was teaching us one of the most valuable lessons that I carry with me to this day. We are all, each of us, only as respectable as our actions and can not hide behind our titles, degrees, or ‘place in life’. He was our father – through and through. 100%. It didn’t matter what we called him.
I spent a lot of time with Dennis in his last months. It is a merciful irony that his short term memory was so affected by the strokes it did not allow him to truly understand the magnitude of his illness. I did not feel it necessary to keep explaining it to him. He was happy to have the company of his brothers and sisters and the rest of his family. His face lit up like it was Christmas day every time he saw my Uncle Lynn – ‘Pancho and Sisco’ they called themselves. This went back to their childhood and if one brother called out ‘Pancho’ you can be sure the ‘Cisco’ was not far behind. In watching my father with his brothers and sisters all summer I learned a great deal about the love of the Sweat clan. My sisters and mother have always been part of this crazy close group of people that wrap you up and sweep you along with laughter, prayer, song and love – always love, but the love between my Aunt Geraldine, Aunt Pat, Uncle Lynn, Uncle Chucky and my father is something that was so precious to see I sometimes felt I should not be watching. This is what ‘all for one’ looks like. On the last visit they had with my father before he stopped being able to really talk, I was taking him back to his room and he said to me ‘It sure is good to have all your family around you.’ That said it all. Please know how very much your love, prayers, hugs, singing, and care meant to Dennis, Aunt Geraldine, Aunt Pat, Uncle Lynn, and Uncle Chucky. You brought him tremendous joy with every visit.
It is easy to allow the most prevalent memories of someone to be the most recent ones, but I would ask those of you that knew Dennis to go back farther than the body that lies before us in repose today. This is the Dennis of NOW. Remember the Dennis of YORE. Remember the Dennis who could move his feet and legs as swiftly as James Brown when ‘Get Up Off of That Thing’ came on any day of the week. Remember the Dennis who cooked up that batch of peanut butter soup, Joy and Terri and we refused to eat it (it’s on the menu of a pretty prominent bed and breakfast in Williamsburg! He was ahead of his time!). Remember the Dennis you drove across the country to Alaska with when you were pregnant with me, Mom. Remember the brother who took each of you under his wing and loved you all. Remember ‘Chris Star’ – the singer, the drummer, the music lover – the man who knew every word to every Stevie Wonder song ever written.
Dennis lived life fully. He lived life hard. He was funny. He cared deeply about his family. He was tough, but he was vulnerable. He wondered whether he had been a good father, a good husband, a good brother, a good son. I told him he’d been a good everything and he could take that to the bank. Remember him in kindness and with love – he loved all of you.
It was my privilege to take this final journey with him and so I’d like to leave you all with a poem by Canon Henry Scott-Holland written on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII. Dennis would have loved this poem and would have especially liked to have known I am reading a poem at his funeral that was commissioned for a king. It is fitting – in many ways, he was ours.
DEATH IS NOTHING AT ALL
Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
Canon Henry Scott-Holland
1847-1918, Canon of St Paul's Cathedral