My name is Katie Lord and Pete was my father.
First of all, thank you to everyone for coming today. Thank you for the cards, letters, flowers, articles, op eds, blog posts, food, emails, and condolences. My heart is swelling with pride and gratitude and love for my father.
Some of you know me because of my blog about his illness. I want to say something about that blog. I’ve had over 13,000 hits on that thing. Thousand. You could attribute half of those to family, particularly our cousins in Florida, and you’d still have a huge number of people following the man. Sometimes I’d tell him how many visitors we’d had and he’d say, nice job, kid. And I’d say, Dad, they’re not reading it because of anything I did, they’re reading it because they are concerned about you. He didn’t see it that way. He just thought it was another example of one of his kids doing something worth talking about. What he didn’t realize is that if that blog had been about anyone else, it probably would have had a tenth of the following. By the way, I think he totally has more Facebook friends than I do. I’m okay with that.
It’s no secret that Pete was a very special guy. I’ve always known that he was well-liked but until his death I don’t think I really grasped the extent of his popularity. When I was little I thought everyone’s dad was like ours. I thought everyone’s dad was silly and sweet and funny and affectionate and fun to wrestle with. I thought everyone’s dad was as approachable as he was. I thought everyone’s dad skied, played catch, went on roller coasters, boogie boarded, and dug to China at the beach with them. I thought everyone’s dad could fix almost anything, I thought everyone’s dad knew this state like the back of his hand. I thought everyone’s dad knew everyone in this state. I’ll never forget the time I was tearing down Arcadia Road, a month after getting my license. A state trooper pulled me over and told me he had been following me for half a mile. My music was so loud I hadn’t even noticed. After he saw my license, he smiled, told me to slow down, and told me to say hello to my father. I did deliver the message…several years later. Two years ago, on Christmas day, our family took walk on the beach. We came across a man with his children and his mother. He warmly shook my father’s hand and said Merry Christmas, Peter. They exchanged a few words about how badly the beach had eroded. As we walked away I asked who he was. He replied, oh that’s Linc Chafee. (No big deal.)
I never actually knew about half of the awards and accolades my dad had garnered until after he passed away. He just wasn’t the kind of person to talk about his own accomplishments. He was as satisfied with his essay on nursing, which he wrote while quite ill and which appeared in the newsletter of the nursing home he was living in, as he was with his award-winning series on lead paint. He quietly earned his master’s degree at the age of 54, while working full time at the Journal and teaching classes at URI. So quietly, in fact, that if my mom hadn’t mentioned it I doubt I would have heard about it from him.
As accomplished, and busy, and well-known as he was, he always managed to turn that around and make you feel like the special one. I never once felt like he didn’t have enough time for me or that I couldn’t go to him for anything. He rarely said no. He rarely got mad at us or raised his voice. He seemed to be at most of our sporting events. My brothers are good athletes. I was….not as good. But he still watched my games, where I sat the bench, with as much interest and pride as he watched theirs. (I’m choosing to remember it that way. If that’s not true, keep it to yourselves). He never yelled at us from the sidelines like a lot of parents did. He stood away from the pack, arms folded, and just observed in his quiet way.
My dad loved to ski. He. Loved. It. He learned with the three of us, when we were little. He could get down the mountain and did pretty well for someone who learned as an adult. But he was never a great skier. I hate to admit this but I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to do things that I don’t excel at. He was not like that at all. He didn’t care that he wasn’t the best skier on the mountain and he also didn’t care who was. He just wanted to be doing it. He pursued skiing, which he was okay at, with the same passion he pursued his journalism, which he was great at.
When I was a kid, I whined and complained a lot. (Okay, I still do.) We’d all be skiing in New Hampshire. Now, skiing in New England really sucks sometimes. The slopes are covered in sheets of ice and it is often freezing. Or it was before Al Gore invented global warming. Sometimes it is grey and windy and sleeting all at once. And I would cry and whine that the weather sucked and I couldn’t feel my feet and I was miserable and wanted to go home and my dad would say don’t you realize how lucky we are to be up here doing this right now. (Huge eye roll.) Of course, I didn’t realize until recently that he was right. He was grateful to just be outside with his kids doing something he loved—ice, rain, wind and all.
A few years ago we, along with a few other people, did a bike ride in New York City, where I live. It covers 40 miles and takes you through all five boroughs of the city. 32,000 people do it each year. They shut down the FDR for the occasion. And it’s in May, so the weather, in theory, is usually gorgeous. The day we did it started out well enough. But as the day went on, the temperature dropped and it drizzled or poured for most of the day. It was grueling, freezing, miserable. None of us were prepared for such crappy weather. There were about six in our group and of course we all got separated. And we didn’t all have each other’s phone numbers. The one person who had everyone’s number was my dad. So, for the entirety of this epic slog through the freezing rain, we all called him repeatedly. There were a lot of ‘where the hell are you’ and ‘let’s quit, let’s just drop out and go home’ and ‘has anyone seen Al. Anyone’? And I can say with great certainty that my mood was foul and my tone was…not polite. But he barely broke a sweat or got annoyed or raised his voice. He never once complained (I’m sure I complained enough for the two of us). He had his cheap crappy cell phone in a sodden Ziploc bag and he fielded calls with aplomb. You’d have thought he was lounging on a sunny beach somewhere, sipping a beer. He laughed a lot that day.
Besides his family, which was, without question, the most important thing to him, my dad loved little kids, big kids, the ocean and the beach, bicycling, the mountains, nature, Tim Russert, his mom, toothpicks, a great story, talk radio, animals, boating, hiking, skiing, Stella Artois, gardening, Rachel Maddow, reading, old westerns, rhythm and blues, action movies, building and fixing things, Bill Moyers, old people, Cee Lo Green, the news, The Celtics, meat and potatoes, The Patriots, power tools, Rhode Island, Block Island, volleyball, pocketknives, New Hampshire, maps, the Rolling Stones, playing jokes on people, coffee….and, of course, food.
We didn’t really use the word gratitude a lot in our house growing up but it’s something that has helped me immensely in the past year. My dad exhibited deep gratitude throughout his life. He could be eating a bowl of stale Cheerios and you would think he was eating filet mignon. You’ve never seen someone so grateful for a crappy bowl of cereal. He was like that with everything. He always seemed to be grateful for the weather, for instance. And if it was raining, well, he was grateful for that because we probably needed it. He was grateful for his work. He loved going to work every day. He always told me it didn’t matter what I did with my life as long as I loved doing it.
A lot of you know that I produce documentaries for a living. I’ve always shared my dad’s passion for great stories. And most people have the same question, what does a producer do anyway? Well, sometimes I don’t even know. But, in short, we bring all the moving pieces together to produce a film or TV show. We connect all the people and elements and try to stay on budget and schedule. It wasn’t until he got sick that I realized something about my dad. He was the consummate producer. The man simply brought people together. He was a magnetic force that drew some of the strangest combinations of personalities together. It didn’t matter what project I was working on, he always had a lead for me. I guess it’s RI, everyone has a guy here. He even produced his own death to some extent. He waited for the four of us and the dog to be there with him so we could say good-bye and we love you, before he went. He didn’t do that for him. He did that for us.
(Speaking of being a magnetic force. I have this very fond image of my dad puttering around the yard in his jeans and t-shirt with a pack of animals following him—our dog and two cats and usually a neighbor’s dog too.)
As multi-faceted and busy as he was, he still managed to be home for dinner every night when we were young. I work out of my boss’s house in Brooklyn, on the top floor. He has two little kids and every night at 6 o’clock, he walks down the stairs and the kids go absolutely wild upon seeing him. You can hear them, all the way down on the first floor, squealing and screaming and jumping with excitement. It’s my favorite part of every day because it reminds me of the thrill of my own dad getting home from work when I was that age. We’d see his car, hide in the same spot every day, jump out squealing, and he’d act surprised every goddamn time. He’d change into jeans, maybe putter around the garden for a few minutes, and then we’d sit down to dinner where he would hold court and tell stories about his day. He could be talking about traffic court and he still made it seem interesting.
My dad rarely complained, even being as sick as he was. He just had no use for it. He hated whiners and complainers. I want to tell a story that I hesitate to tell for two reasons: one, it’s going to make me cry. And two, I don’t want him to be remembered as being sick. But I love this story and it says so much about who he was as a person.
I don’t know how many of you realize how sick he actually was. Last August, after a second craniotomy, he was left paralyzed on the entire left side of his body. He was also blind in his left eye. We thought he could regain the use of at least his arm but he never did. All of the surgery and medications left his personality…somewhat compromised. This was in December or January. He was taking one of his many naps of the day. I checked on him every 10 or 15 minutes because he was so disabled that if he needed something, he couldn’t just hop out of bed. So I walk by the room and see that he’s not asleep at all, he’s wide awake, staring at the ceiling. I ask him if he needs anything. He says, “Yes. I need you to go out to the shed and get my bike helmet. I’ve been lying here dreaming about racing my wheelchair down the bike path and I need my helmet.”
It was freezing out and he had stage 4 brain cancer and was half paralyzed and couldn’t stay awake for more than 2 hours at a time because of all the drugs and radiation and surgery but he wasn’t lying there feeling sorry for himself, he was just dreaming about being outside and active again. He didn’t complain about being in a wheelchair, he was thinking about how to make it go faster.
It hasn’t completely hit me yet that he’s gone. People have told me to wait a couple of weeks for the ton of bricks to hit me in the face. I keep expecting to see him whenever we all get together. They just tore down the house across the street from us and I keep thinking about what Pete would do with that kind of excitement. He’d spend some time in our yard, quietly observing from a distance. And by the end of the day, he probably would have been up on the roof with a hammer helping to disassemble the thing. There are the big hits that come with losing him at such a young and vibrant age. He’s never going to be a grandfather to my children. He would have been the greatest grandfather ever. He’s not going to be at my wedding. But there are the smaller hits that are almost harder to take. Like that he’s never going to see any more of my films. He’s never going to be in my apartment in Brooklyn again. Or pick me up at the train station. Or send me any more hilarious, pithy emails. He’s never going to greet me on the phone with one of his three one-word greetings: Dude, Dudette, Kid. All of that is too difficult to process at this point.
Even in the midst of this unspeakable sadness and grief and the gaping hole that my dad has left in all of our lives, I am still grateful for so much. I’m grateful that he had his seizure in the newsroom and not on 95. I’m grateful that he and my mom worked really hard their whole lives and we were able to focus on his health this past year and not how they were going to pay for it all. I’m grateful that I wasn’t working last summer and got to spend three whole months with him. I’m grateful that he had a last summer and we got to the beach every day. I’m grateful that I got to say goodbye. I’m grateful for such an amazing father. I’m grateful that I will take him with me through the rest of my life.
I think the best way to honor and celebrate him is to try to emulate him, even if just a little bit. We could all afford to lighten up a little. We could all be kinder, humbler, and more selfless. We could all do more for our communities and the environment. And we could all stop sweating the small stuff and appreciate the simple things. Cause that’s what Pete would have done.
Dad, I love you. And I miss you more than I can say.