Thursday, July 7, 2016

Eulogy for my father

How sweet a thing is a Christian death.

Once the fact of my father José Manuel’s sudden passing had somewhat sunk into my mind I recollect suddenly smiling to myself. As Christians we are taught that death is only a pause in eternal life. That our loved ones are now among the angels before the very throne of God and that this is a much better location than the one we occupy today. 

This was only one of the teachings that made me smile. The other was the sudden recognition that even though we grieve the physical absence of our loved ones, we also know that on death we are freed from our mortal shells. As such, the departed are also perpetually with us, perhaps closer to us than they were in real life, and always assisting us in our prayers. I have often found these teachings somewhat abstract and it was only with my father’s passing that I realized it emotionally. My father will always be with me, with us, from this moment on. As such, especially given the peaceful manner of his death, this is truly a moment of rejoicing and an occasion to give thanks to God.

You may consider it odd that I choose to open the eulogy of my father with a somewhat catechetical contemplation on Christian death. I am emboldened to do so because the faith meant everything to my father. He was not only raised in the faith by his own parents, the late Manuelinho Tomas Aquino Fernandes and Armina dos Remedios e Fernandes, but he raised us, his sons, in the same faith, providing a model not only through his words, but also in the way he lived his life. Indeed, if his life was marked by anything, it was a solid proximity to the sacraments and the desire to incarnate a Christian life.

Those who know him well will testify to his attempt to be present at the celebration of the Mass every day. He passed on this deep respect for the Mass by teaching all three of his sons how to serve at the altar. This is a kind of intimacy that cannot be explained but is borne out by the fact that in this profoundly secularizing world his sons are more than just ritual Catholics.

In his marriage he could be stubborn and headstrong, but along with his wife, our mother Philomena, he gave witness to a Christian marriage. Their marriage may not have been made in Hollywood, but it was definitely made in heaven. They would often argue, even scream at each other, often to our despair. And yet! And yet, the complete loyalty to each other is something to emulate. The life of my father was one that was filled with trials and tribulations. Through them all, my mother stood by him through thick and thin. He on the other hand demonstrated his loyalty and commitment, and his care, as was his wont, in simple, yet profound ways. I remember, for example, a pilgrimage our family made to the shrine of Nossa Senhora de Montserrat, just outside of Barcelona. We stayed an entire blessed day in the sanctuary. Toward the end of the day cold winds blew through the hills in which the shrine is located. My mother may be a stoic rock when faced with troubles, but she has little resistance to the cold and suffered as we made our way down to the base of the hills. I recollect the way my father sought to shelter my mother, who had no jacket or pullover, with his body. I thought then, as I do now, that there was a profound lesson there in marital and Christian love.

As I just mentioned, my father’s life was marked by trials and tribulations. He worked hard, the poor man, and was often beset by the most horrific incidents. I remember the time a huge machine he was setting up at his industrial unit in Honda crushed his most elegant fingers. Or his heroic battle, assisted once again by the unfailing courage of my mother, against leukemia. He never lost faith though, that God does all things for the best.

Many of you are aware that some decades ago my father made a rather disastrous decision to open an ice factory in Pomburpa. I want to use the words of a friend to describe the reasons for the fiasco. “He was such a fine man, a real gentleman, some would say too fine for today’s twisted world.” In a business environment whose relationship to the law is marked by a wink and a nod, his commitment to honesty as a part of his Christian faith ensured that he complied with the law according to the letter such that he could not compete within the market. He would harass officials with his persistence, but there was no question of paying a bribe. In this respect, he was a man like many Catholics of his generation; God-fearing in the sense of respecting the commandments and trying to live an honest life. There was no shortcut to comfort, or success, only hard, and honest work. As my brother Joshua drew to my attention, our father recognized the dignity of labour, and was not above undertaking the most menial of tasks if it had to be done. Nor did the social station of an individual cause him to treat the individual in an impolite manner. This regard for the dignity of labour is one lesson that we will not soon forget.

Too often these days, these values are lacking around us, and I see in the death of my father, the death of a certain kind of Goan, and we are all the poorer for it. Indeed, if there was one thing that struck me in the condolences that have poured in it was the consistent reference to his charm, his politeness, and his gentlemanly nature.

Amor, was marked by a profound sense of duty and was as such, a faithful son, and committed to his family. He loved with all his heart and might his uncles and aunts, brothers, cousins. So deep was his love for his family that some members of the family knew that they could rely on Amor to fulfill domestic tasks that the children of the house would not. He was above all devoted to his mother. So devoted, that saving the house in Mapuca that she was so proud of was a commitment, perhaps even an obsession, for him. With Joel, my brother, he commenced on what can only be called a labour of love, to save the house from being one more Goan house slated to make way for a block of flats. Having done this, he lovingly restored it. I dare say that today that the Fernandes house in Mapuca stands as a testament to the beauty of the Goa we all cherish so much.

Speaking of Goa, I must point out that there are many aspects of our culture that we learn to despise or are embarrassed by. My father’s love of tiatr and cantaram allowed me to gain respect for these cultural forms. A respect that has allowed me to gain a PhD based on the politics around these forms and in this way highlight their importance to the survival of our cultural world.

Having made these observations on love, there is another aspect to the man that I cannot forget to mention. I wonder if his mother realised how apt was the name, Amor, that she gave him at this cradle. Known to almost the entire Portuguese-speaking world in Goa as Amor, love in all its aspects was something that defined his existence. He was love incarnated. He was the life of any party, the animation of a dance floor. I am very fond of one the sayings attributed to St. Irenaeus, one of the early fathers of the Church, that, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive!” My father had a joy for life and clung on to it fiercely. It was this will to survive, and indeed be fully alive, that allowed him to triumph over his financial crises, as well as the life-threatening conditions he twice found himself in. To this extent my father was a testament to the glory of God.

But he was not just a good time Charlie. My mother revealed to me that my father had a list of names of people he promised to pray for. I know that subsequent to his recovery from cancer he would pray for others with cancer. It is not coincidence, therefore, that the images of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, and Mary, held a prominent place in our house for as long as I can remember. Our father gave his name to our house, Villa Amor, and it was for this reason, that when looking for an icon for the Villa Amor WhatsApp group, it was obvious to me that a flaming heart was the most appropriate.

I could go on, and on, but I realize that I must stop soon. Before I do so, I would like to recollect his gift of Portuguese citizenship to his sons. Trying to resolve the many mess-ups in the documentation, our father travelled to far-off places, Mysore, Puttur, to get the documentation in order.  These sacrifices have made me alive to the sacrifice of so many Goan parents, who wish merely to pass on this birthright to their children. As you can see, my father was to me not only a good man, he was, he IS, a symbol of an entire culture that may be dying, but is not yet dead, and is as worthy of conservation as the beautiful memory of my father.

I spoke earlier of my brother Joel’s his support to my father’s restoration project. Joel will miss my father profoundly. Daddy was his best buddy, his project partner. I can only imagine the loneliness in his heart right now. Joel has had the privilege of being closest to our parents when they were in need of help. For your presence Joel, and the financial support you have extended when there was need, my sincere thanks.

My father was not a perfect man. He had his flaws. However, as we stand and look back at his life, his goodness, sincerity, and devotion are what come to mind.

I would like to end this eulogy with a reference to the Book of Job. “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” For the gift of love that you gave us in the life of Amor, and for the precious minutes we have had with him, we thank you and bless you. We know he is safe by your side. Amen.

(A version of this post was first read out at the funeral of my father at the church of St. Michael the Archangel in Taleigao on 5 July 2016)