My father in law died yesterday.
His name was Richard Guggenheimer. He was 78, and had been struggling with health issues for quite the spell.
He was a good man.
I think, too often, we use the occasion of someone’s death to exaggerate the positives; to pretend as if our lost beloved hovered above water and cured Chronic Focal Encephalitis and never cursed or snarled or farted or burped. We insist that so-and-so figure will eternally be remembered; that he/she changed an infinite number of lives; that the world is a worse place without their presence.
My father in law was, simply, a good man.
Which isn’t that simple.
Most of us aspire to be good, and that generally takes work. You think about who you are and what needs to be changed. You think about perceptions. How people see you. How they digest your behaviors.
Richard Guggenheimer didn’t operate as such.
He was quiet. Not bashful, but reserved. If he had something to say, he’d say it. But he was far more listener than gabber. An observer. A watcher. And the thing is (and this, to me, is the greatest compliment one can give another person), Richard never talked shit about anyone. When I say ‘never,’ I literally mean n-e-v-e-r. He was married (and divorced) twice, and I failed to hear an ill word concerning either ex. He has three daughters (including my wife), and not once did I witness him criticize them. His oldest child is divorced—not a moment of bashing the ex-husband. Not. A. Moment.
And what’s truly unique about this is Richard wasn’t suppressing his trash talk. As I do on occasion. As you do on occasion. Nope—it simply never occurred to him to speak ill of others. It wasn’t inside of him.
Which is goodness.
Which is true goodness.
My father in law displayed no sign of an ego. None. Zero. Zip. He never bragged. He never boasted. Few were the sentences that began with “I.” Few were the times he went with “Me.” Again—this wasn’t by any sort of pre-determined thought. The ego simply did not exist.
Which is goodness.
Which is true goodness.
Once, not all that long ago, my father in law lost much of what was in his life. He had a fancy car—gone. He had a longtime marriage—over. He had a beautiful house—goodbye. It’s too complicated and thick to get into, but all the material things one craves (and hopes to accumulate) no longer existed. This happened to occur around the same time his once-razor-sharp memory was slipping, and his business career was falling apart, and he moved in with his sister, and …
It was ugly.
So, in the lord’s year of 2015, Richard relocated from New York to California. My wife (the amazing Catherine Pearlman) was adamant he make the move—and I agreed. He lived with us for a spell, then settled into a nearby assisted living center. And, eh, it was not the best. He was battered. Beaten down. Forgetful. Wayward. And I wondered whether we were witnessing the beginning of the end. What would he be without the house, the car, the marriage, the job? What would happen to my father in law?
Here’s what happened: Gorgeous contentment.
He threw himself into the simple things. A lot of cards. A lot of Bingo. Helping out his fellow residents. He met a woman named Sandy—a widower with marvelous hair who oozed warmth—and referred to her as “the love of my life.” They did things together. Little things like meals. Bigger things like casino trips and attending a wedding. They held hands and helped each other up steps. They laughed over Sandy’s 8,000-pound dog. They were nothing short of adorable.
And it turns out all those lost material things were (cliche be damned) just things. My father in law wasn’t the house, the car, the fancy meals. I don’t think he ever was those things. In a weird way (that I never fully grasped until sitting here right now), it took losing what he had for me to see who he was.
A good man.
A simple, beautiful, good man.
For the past seven years, we had dinner with Richard every Sunday. Every. Single. Sunday. He (and Sandy, until her heartbreaking 2020 passing) would enter our home. We’d grab him a Diet Peach Snapple. He’d sit on the end of the couch (alongside our dog Poppy—who could never stop licking his face) and we’d watch game shows. Family Feud. America Says. Chain Reaction. A little Shark Tank. We’d answer questions aloud. Laugh about some of the clueless replies. We’d eat dinner. Quietly, but lovingly. He wouldn’t say a ton, but when he did speak—the remarks would surprise you. A joke. A quip. A memory you wrongly thought had faded away. Richard was comfort food brought to life. Family.
When I learned of his death, it was a punch to my stomach. I didn’t merely like my father in law. I loved the man as I love my own parents. His final breaths were taken inside a nearby hospital, surrounded by his three daughters.
Surrounded by love.
When people ask me about him, I won’t brag and I won’t exaggerate. I won’t say he was Einstein II. I won’t say he could have been Mickey Mantle or Frank Sinatra.
I’ll say he was someone who never spoke ill of another. Someone who enjoyed the little. Someone who lost what he had and gained everything.
I’ll say he was a good man.
Which, in its own way, is greatness.