When I spoke at my dad’s memorial service, I did something I never do: I used a manuscript. Normally I write some notes to guide me, and speak only from those. But I didn’t trust myself to be able to do that. So that Saturday morning I gathered my notes and put my thoughts down. This is the (slightly edited) manuscript I used.
We’re here to remember, and to celebrate, Tommy Fordham. My dad was born on December 4, 1949, and died July 20. He was 67 years old.
When it became apparent dad wasn’t going to be able to beat cancer, I knew I wanted to speak at his funeral. I’ve had a number of people ask in recent days if I was up for this. The answer, obviously, is: “No, I am not.” But there you are, and here I am. So I should probably say something. My dad taught taught me to do hard things.
When we write eulogies there’s a tendency to overlook the bad. This is understandable. But, honestly, I don’t have a lot of bad stuff I could say about dad:
- He didn’t get excited about Alabama football.
- He had bad taste in TV shows.
- That’s about it.
We like to make people out to be perfect after they’re dead. My dad was a good man, but he was not perfect. But I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from dad; He wasn’t perfect, but he was a good man. And he was a good man, ultimately, because he worked to be a good man.
If you knew my dad, one thing you probably think of when you think of him is hard work. The man worked like it was going out of style. I wrote a half-joking obituary for dad, and mentioned that he was tougher than you because he kept working while getting IV chemo drugs. That was not a joke. He actually carried a laptop to his treatments and kept working.
Dad learned about work at a young age. All the Fordham boys did. Dad started construction work when he was in his teens. But dad didn’t just work hard. He wanted to learn everything he could about construction.
Where I work now, we have several standards. One is, “Never stop learning.” Dad was into that way before it was cool.
True story: When I was 13-14 I was looking through some of dad’s books and I found one on carpentry skills. I noticed it had a library label on the side, and library card holder inside the back cover. I asked dad where he got it, assuming he would say a garage sale or something. No, he told me. He had checked it out of the library and, when he found it to be really useful, he told the library he had lost it, paid them for the book, and kept it.
This was typical dad. I never knew the man to read anything like a novel, or even a regular magazine. But he could go through a 1000+ page AutoCAD manual in a week or so. He would sit in his chair, with a beer that he would never finish, and spend hours reading it like it was a bestseller.
Dad didn’t just want to work hard. He wanted to be better than anyone else at what he did. And he put the time in to constantly get better.
One Friday a construction company had computer problems, and they weren’t able to print out paychecks for their subcontractors. They were very surprised when my dad showed up, covered in sawdust, and fixed the problem.
What they did not know is my dad had been playing with computers since the early 80s. He wrote his own general ledger program, in BASIC, on a Commodore 64. (That may seem like nothing to most of you, but those of know, know how crazy that is.) He’s the reason I got into computers, and the reason I have a career today. He’s a major reason I love to learn.
I learned from dad that you can be interested in things like carpentry and computers, and there’s no problem with that. It didn’t matter if people knew, or if they thought it strange or surprising.
Dad enjoyed working. He enjoyed building homes. He enjoyed designing homes for people. He was great at problem solving, and he put those skills to use for people. He worked hard at it, and nurtured his reputation as someone who would outwork you, and do a great job.
Of course, when I was a little kid, I didn’t know any of this. My earliest memories of dad have nothing to do with his work. The first memory is him holding me up, letting me fly like superman down the hall when he was putting me to bed. The next memory is “helping” him build a desk for his office. I remember we were in the garage, and our dog Pepper drank some of dad’s tea. He was annoyed, but then said he might as well let her have it after she started drinking it. I thought that was the funniest thing ever.
I remember riding around in dad’s truck listening to music that I only like today because of my dad. Hank Williams, Roger Miller, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline. Good lord, Patsy Cline. The man loved her. I still find this funny.
He also introduced me to Johnny Cash. But I think I would have liked Cash with or without dad. Hank Williams, not so much.
Dad was a lot of things. Carpenter, home designer, Marine, business owner. But to me he was dad. He loved his family, all of us. I know at times I wasn’t very likable, but dad always loved me. Honestly, some of y’all have never been too likable, but he loved you, too.
From dad I learned that you show up for family, no matter what. People make boneheaded decisions, but you love them anyway. One time someone didn’t attend a wedding, and I remember clearly what dad said to me about it. “You don’t do that. You can never take that back.” Agree or disagree, you think about the consequences and then make the hard choice. That was my dad, through and through.
Dad was proud to be a former Marine. He was drafted, but ended up loving the Corps. He never bragged about it. There may be some of you here today who didn’t know dad was even in the military. He never asked for anything from it. But he was proud to have answered when he was called. Earlier I took Kathleen to meet the Marine Honor Guard. I asked her if she knew what a Marine was, and she said, “Something better than the army.” My dad would have loved that.
I don’t want to dwell on dad’s cancer, but I don’t think I can leave some things out. I strongly believe that you are not who you are, really, on the easy days. You are who you are on the hard days. The last months of dad’s life were hard. Who you are, and how you act, when you know you’re dying shows your character. It shows who you really are.
Dad was strong, physically and mentally. The first night he was home from the hospital mom and Lynette were trying to get him situated. Dad pushed them all over the place. I had to hold dad’s arms down. He did not like to be messed with and let us know. Once he tried pushing me away. When he couldn’t he looked at mom and stuck his tongue out at her, then at me. Dad was a fighter, and stayed that way his entire life.
Dad was nice to the nurses. When they left the room he might complain to me about how they wouldn’t leave him alone. But to them he was always nice. Several of them told me they liked chatting with dad. Even when he would get confused, the nurses told me he stayed pleasant, and would actually apologize for not being able to think of the right words.
In the hospital he showed how much he loved my mom. He was happy to talk with me, but he often asked when mom would be back. He told me once, “I like her being here. She’s my babe.” He worried about her getting enough rest, taking care of herself, but he wanted her around him.
He worried about me and Tommy, and his grandkids. Dad loves his grandkids. He had some by blood, and some by adoption, and he loved them all. One of the last outings dad had before things started getting bad was Presley’s 4th birthday party. We were all surprised he came. But he told mom he felt up to it that day. Later he would tell me, “Of course I went, Presley’s my buddy.”
Dad had a lot of goofy things about him, too. He picked on people constantly. If he liked you he picked on you, if he didn’t he didn’t like you. If you’re here today and dad was always nice to you, I don’t know what to tell you now.
My kids love his pancakes. They asked him to make little pancakes for them. So he would put a single drop of batter in the pan, cook it, and serve it to them. They thought this was hysterical. Because they’re kids they wanted it done every time. Dad was in his 60s, but like a kid he’d do it every time.
He would get used to driving a certain route and would do that, even if he was supposed to be going somewhere else. More than once dad would be driving me to school; I’d look up as he got out to the truck and climbed up on a house to start his day. I’d have to yell for him to come back, and he’d run back and take me to school. He once dropped me off to return a movie (back in the dark ages when we rented movies from actual stores) and he ran to the post office. I come out of the store just in time to watch dad’s truck go by. He got back to the house walked in, and remembered he’d left me.
I used to laugh about that. I laughed about how dad, a lefty, would have to switch seats so he wouldn’t bump elbows with mom, who’s right-handed. But I warn people now, don’t laugh at your parents. Because I married Amber, who’s a lefty, and we have to do the same dance.
And, as Amber will tell you, I get a destination locked into my mind, and will drive right past where I’m supposed to be going. She has to remind me to turn.
I commented to Amber years ago that I was turning into my dad. She laughed and said, “Well, overalll I’d be OK with that.”
Overall, I’m OK with it, too.