Editor's note: Father's Day can be a bittersweet holiday for those who have recently lost a father. Written as a Father's Day tribute in 2003, this essay is excerpted from Writing Home, a local story collection by Cindy La Ferle.
Eleven years ago, after my father’s sudden passing, one of the first things my mother and I did was hire a bagpiper to play at his funeral.
He was the son of Scottish immigrants who came to Detroit from the Orkney Islands in the 1920s. Always proud of his Celtic heritage, Bill Gullion had been raised to appreciate everything about the old country – food, folklore and history. Naturally, he loved the highland bagpipes, and we’d all have to stop whatever we were doing to listen to the pipe-and-drum corps whenever they marched in parades or performed on television.
The piper we hired for Dad’s funeral played a few solemn airs before the interment. I’d requested “Amazing Grace” and “Scotland the Brave” – not very original, I’ll admit, but my father loved those pieces, and we all felt better knowing they were the last played before his burial. It was foggy and rainy that morning – very British – and every mournful note from those pipes seemed to linger in the humid July air.
During the first two weeks after the funeral, our whole family drifted through our own mental fog. We kept busy driving to banks and government offices to revise my parents’ accounts and personal papers. My mother and I opened Dad’s closet and somehow managed the inconceivable task of sorting through his suits and ties.
At the time I was in my late 30s and had a family of my own; yet suddenly I felt like an abandoned child.
Trying to maintain a normal routine, I took my mother and 6-year-old son to Royal Oak’s for a picnic supper. We’d barely unpacked the potato salad when we heard the inimitable drone of a bagpipe a few feet behind our picnic table. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. And when the piper began playing “Scotland the Brave,” well, suffice it to say the tears rolled nonstop, nudging us out of our numbness and into the next stage of healing.
The piper wasn’t a phantom, of course, but a very real student who’d decided to practice in the park at the same time we’d chosen to have a picnic. Still, I wanted to believe that the impromptu recital was a signal from my dad – a mystical “thank you” for the proper sendoff we’d given him a few days earlier.
The piper episode came to mind again this spring after I attended a memorial service at for the father of John Schultz of Royal Oak.
John’s father, Arthur J. Schultz Jr., was a retired Navy captain, and his whole family took pride in his military career. For the service, John wrote a heartfelt tribute to his dad, calling him a fiercely patriotic American, a devoted husband, and a beloved father of six. He also shared several examples of his father's heroism.
But even more remarkable to me was the fact that John was able to stand at the pulpit and read the moving eulogy he’d written. It was a very brave thing to do, and I have no doubt that Capt. Schultz was saluting John from his new tour of duty in heaven.
Not long after his father died, John took a business trip to Chicago, where he happened to catch a glimpse of a Navy captain on a street corner.
A longtime journalist and editor, John has been a close friend of mine for many years, and I've never thought of him as overly sentimental or superstitious. But he told me he found comfort in the sight of the familiar Navy uniform and believed it was a sign. He stopped to chat with the captain, briefly telling him about his father’s recent passing. Returning home to Royal Oak that evening, he felt more at peace.
As John reminded me later on, you don’t often spot a Navy captain standing casually on a street corner. Nor is it common to hear a bagpiper droning a few tunes in a suburban Detroit park.
No matter how old you are, it’s never easy to lose your dad. You still look for traces and reminders of him wherever you go.
Writing Home (Copyright 2005; Hearth Stone Books) is available on Amazon.com and locally at the Yellow Door Art Market in Berkley. For more information visit Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office.