Peter James Troy
To begin with, my father was not a man for many tears or lamentations and if anyone needs reassurance that this is a joyful moment just think of the man you knew, whether as Peter, Mr. Troy, Dad, Uncle Pete or Papa, and imagine him hovering somewhere above us, as he most surely is. Here we are, this whole congregation, gathered to celebrate his life, and talk about him, with him right at the center of such a thing, and if you knew my father even just a little, you know that he’s LOVING every minute of this.So yes, this is a joyful moment.
This is when we place the frame around the great picture that is his life. We all weave together unique and seemingly disconnected threads to form our own life’s picture, but my father, with more than just a little of the eccentric in him, placed particular emphasis on the unique part of that formula. He was one of a kind, to be sure. An old family friend, Fr. Kohli, once described him as a man who would be “equally comfortable amidst kings and paupers”. What a wonderful thing that must have been to be like, and who amongst us would not wish the same to be said of ourselves?
But I don’t think my father was born with this trait, or even came about it easily. I believe instead that it was the product of a conscious effort. And not the “Forty Days to a Better You,” approach to self-improvement, but instead a life-long journey, to delve evermore deeply into this gift, that is life. A man on such a journey, if he is true, can be best understood by the simplest, and most seemingly uneventful moments of his life, better even than his triumphs. And that was my father.A driving force in his journey was his thirst for knowledge, wherever it might be found, and whatever the source. And for me, that was never more evident than on a family ski trip to Pennsylvania, when I was just twelve years old. My father and I were both complete novices to skiing, and were licking our wounds after a disastrous first attempt at the bunny slope, when a little boy, maybe six or seven at most, came zipping down towards us. He had no ski poles, wore goggles that wrapped halfway around the back of his head since they were so big on him, and his skis looked like somebody had sawed the last two feet off the end of them. Still, he stopped himself on a dime just a few feet from my father and me and had the audacity to tell me that I was doing the snowplow all wrong. Now, I was practically an adult, being twelve and well on my way to thirteen, and I wasn’t about to listen to some kid half my age tell me how to ski.
But my father was more than willing to listen.For the next twenty minutes or so, he picked that kid’s brain for all it was worth, not a patronizing sort of thing, but really intent on learning, you see. I wish I’d been smart enough to stick around and listen, but I took the more manly and dignified approach, tumbling, literally, down the bunny slope a few more times....while in the meantime my father actually learned how to ski. From a seven year old. And why not, since every voice was given equal bearing with him.
Now, lucky for me, he saw knowledge as a thing to be spread even to the stubborn or just plain stupid, so I eventually learned to snowplow as well, from him...with what he’d learned from that annoying little seven year old. And I look at that moment I have always remembered, as my first lesson that the distance between our starting point in life, and our finishing point in life, is mostly defined by our willingness to be humble, so that we may be lifted up.Now, inquisitiveness may have driven my father on his journey, but it was integrity that did the steering. And again, the simplest of moments in his life tell volumes about what a man he was.
I was perhaps nine or ten for this one, and walked outside on an early summer morning to see if my friend Johnny from across the street was ready to play wiffleball. Johnny was already outside, helping his father collect the trash cans from the street in front of their house. These were the days when trash cans were made of tin and aluminum and registered every bruise like they were over-ripe bananas being knocked against the edges of sanitation trucks and then tossed back to the curb.And Johnny’s father was quite a frugal man, so their trash cans, though still mostly functional, resembled something that had fallen off an orbiting satellite and crashed to earth, then been dragged behind a sanitation truck for a few days, before finding a home across the street from us. And as Johnny took the last of them to the side of their house, his father began to walk back to their front door. That’s when my father pulled up.
I was surprised to see him, since he had left for work about half an hour earlier. He said nothing to me or Johnny, just called after Johnny’s father, then got out of the car and walked to the back of our green Plymouth station wagon, and took out a brand new trash can, the likes of which did not exist anywhere on our block. It was silver and perfectly ruffled, reflecting the brilliant sun in a dozen directions all at once. This can had its lid intact, not like the ones we used as shields during winter snowball fights, or as bases on the street during the summer. It was among the most beautiful things I’d seen to that point in my life, and I was excited at the idea that we were moving up in the world, to own such a trash can.But then my father carried that can right up to Johnny’s father and handed it to him, explaining that he had bumped into one of their cans as he backed out of the driveway on his way to work. Johnny’s father told him that it wasn’t necessary, that he hadn’t even noticed the fresh dent and so on, but in the end he accepted it like the trophy that it was. And after the dust had cleared and my father was back on his way to work, Johnny asked me why my father had done such a thing, especially since his father hadn’t even noticed that there was more damage to the can. I was nine, or maybe ten, and more than a little jealous of the brilliant new trash can Johnny would now get to carry back and forth from the curb, so I simply shrugged my shoulders and left it at that. But if I had the chance to answer Johnny’s question today I could do it with a single word...a word to most assuredly describe my father.....integrity.
Now, my father, having driven the family station wagon halfway up and down the East Coast on many a family vacation, knew that the most essential ingredient to any successful journey was without a doubt, a sense of humor. Greater than the joy he found in his own laughter was the joy he found in seeing other people laugh, and never more so than when he had provided the reason for it.For his students it might take the form of the now-famous Karl Marx song, performed to the melody of the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies, and passed on from year to year...because learning is supposed to be joyful, he’d say.
Friends and colleagues knew him as a man quick to offer a song or an offbeat saying at any random moment. He was never too busy for a song, or especially a laugh.And his family knew his humor daily, in all the same ways his students and colleagues did, only manifest in Christmas Eve’s and ordinary Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoon drives to nowhere in particular, so long as there was ice cream somewhere along the way. And oh, how we treasured his very presence among us...always, you see.
Now, throughout these recollections, some of you have nodded your heads, smiling, perhaps nudging each other as if to say, ‘Mmmm-hmmm, that was him’. But these are mostly the small moments, the little bits left over after the weddings and births and graduations all get talked about. So why is my father so easily recognizable in these small moments, told to people who knew him in so many different capacities? I don’t think it is because he wore his heart on his sleeve, but rather, because he wore his soul on his sleeve. Every voice heard with equal resonance, every person treated with dignity and respect. And that’s a thing to make a man at home with kings and paupers alike, a great and dangerous thing to be sure, for what a bar it is to set for oneself. And yet, that’s what he did. Day to day, along the course of this beautiful life. And surely that would make a man great in even the smallest of moments.So we do the work of framing his life, hoping we can summon together all those unique threads into one image. But it is for our purposes only, you know – for the image of him we will hang on the walls of our memory is but a speck of who he was in the eyes of our Lord. Still, we do what we can, limited as we are in all the ways my father no longer is....no longer limited by the minuteness of our frames, or powerless to see the threads being sewn together.
And then, finally, there is only to firmly establish the joyous nature of this occasion, and to do so, I must relay one more story from his life.It occurred when he and my mother had returned to school well into their forties, and found themselves full-time undergraduate college students with classmates younger than some of their own children. It was a philosophy final they were taking at the end of the semester, and the test consisted of ten possible essay topics, of which they were supposed to answer any three of their choosing. The first nine were of the standard fare....what did Descartes have to say about this.....and describe Plato’s ideas on that....and so on....all nine of them, just what you’d expect on any Philosophy 201 final in any college, anywhere in the country. But then there was that tenth question, written by their professor who had, perhaps, just a little bit of the eccentric in him too, the way my father had. That tenth essay topic was simply.....“What is?”
Guess who was the only one in the entire class to choose essay topic number ten?My mother told us this story with fatigued humor...after all she was the one who had waited for my father for more than an hour in the hallway outside the classroom, and this after the rest of the class had finished the exam and gone on their way. One hour. Beyond the two and a half hours already allotted for the entire test, until finally, even the Professor grew tired and had my father wrap up, pleased as punch that someone would take the bait, but, come on...enough already.
I don’t recall what my father said in his answer to that essay question. But we talked about it. He talked about that question all the time, not the experience of answering the question on that test, as much as in his very manner. Of seeking the answer to it...daily...since it was the essence of every other question he ever asked of another...his colleagues...his family...his students...God.What is?
With him aaall the while thirsting for the answer. And so now there is only this to tell us the joy that is this moment.For now....he knows.