The best seat in the house

Thomas Stephen Gleeson (1952-2012):

The truth is, I started writing this eulogy a year and a half ago. I started writing it in my head, piece by piece when my Dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 incurable cancer. I still believed he would fight and I clung to every ounce of hope that was presented to our family. But in the back of my mind, I knew my father was handed a death sentence. It was November of 2010 when we heard the news. They told us it would be 3 months.

So I stand before you 17 months later with a different message than I ever planned to deliver. I’m here to tell you the story of a great man for the majority of his life. But I’m also here to tell you the story of a man who became my hero over the last year and a half.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

My father was presented with a terrible illness, but not once did I witness a pity party. Instead, I saw courage and strength. I saw the will to fight adversity, the will to live longer.

I saw a man stare down death in the face and refuse it. He refused it because he wanted to be around to grow old with my mom. He refused it because he wanted to see me get married. He refused it because he wanted to be around for grandchildren.

My Dad endured over 20 rounds of chemotherapy during his treatment. Yet he didn’t let what he couldn’t do interfere with what he could do. He still remained the glue that stuck our family together, bringing my Mom and I overwhelming happiness. He still got up at 5 a.m. and went to work—leading his team of social workers in doing what he loved: helping people. He still exercised regularly, even running a 5K and the last few miles of a marathon with me.

To me, there are two types of people. There are those who quit a race when they know there’s no chance to win. And then there are those who keep running. My Dad never stopped running. He promised my mom and I he would fight ‘till his last breath. He kept that promise.

Since my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, I heard many people tell me they were praying and asking God for a miracle.

Well I’m here to tell all of you, that I witnessed a miracle over the last 17 months. I saw a stubborn man become unstubborn. I saw a man with a hard work ethic, dig deeper and find an extra gear of determination. I saw a man come closer to his faith, welcoming God’s blessings and turning his focus away to life’s unfairness. I saw a man embrace his family members more than he had his entire life. I saw a great husband become a better husband. I saw a great father became a better father.

When my grandpa passed away before I was born, my Dad had a reading at his funeral. He said, “You were never able to see me play tennis, Dad. But now you’ve got the best seat in the house up in heaven.”

It’s ironic to me because my Dad always made sure to have the best seat in the house for every stage in my life. Whether it was at a basketball game yelling louder than any parent or at a track meet yelling my splits at each lap. My dad was always my number one fan. He smiled so proudly at my college graduation, he read every article I ever wrote. And he even forced himself out of the house when the Cancer had spread to his bones…just to celebrate my new job with my Mom and I.

My friends who know me well, know me for my confidence, they know me for my cockiness. That overabundance of confidence came from my Dad. Whatever I did, good or bad, he was there for me. I’m whole-heartedly convinced, he was the proudest parent in the universe. Not many kids can say that.

His direction was impeccable at a young age. When I came home crying after a basketball game because I didn’t play, I asked him to call the coach. He refused and took me to the park to teach me left-handed lay-ups and repeated free-throw shooting. But first we had to shovel snow off the court because it was winter time. He didn’t want to persuade the coach like many other fathers would have done…he wanted me to earn it. He instilled within me the same desire he had, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

And my Dad’s impact on others will be everlasting. To the many staffs he worked with as a sweater-wearing social worker, he was the director and manager who embodied leadership and inflicted his own passion for helping people into others. To his brother-in-law, he was an ace-serving tennis partner. To his nieces, he was the Uncle who always made them feel like the only kids in the world. To his nephew and I, he was known as the legendary Free-Throw Tom. To his little sister, he was the older brother to push her through a fence to play basketball with her.

We’ll all have our favorite memories: For me, I’ll remember him pace walking out of excitement at the 2011 U.S. Open in New York to enjoy what he said was “one of the best days of his life.”

For my Mom, she’ll remember 37 years of marriage that included shutting the screen on my Dad’s face on the first date, living in Hawaii together, and trips to Door County.

My Grandma will hold onto one last special phone call when her son thanked her for being such a great Mom and told her how much he loved her.

My Uncle Jim recalls getting agitated at a YMCA pick-up game when a hot-head asked him if he was Tom Gleeson’s brother. “I was so pissed because I was the older brother,” Jim said. “As I grew older, I was so proud to say I’m Tom Gleeson’s brother.”

My Aunt Mary will remember her brother’s relentless work ethic that became extraordinary when he systematically fought for his life and took Cancer head on. “During his final two weeks,” Mary said. “I found a striking resemblance to Tom and the current GPS systems of today – any time his illness took a wrong turn, Tom recalculated, and continued on the journey.”

There’s a lot that isn’t fair in all of this, I’ll be the first to admit that. No wife should have to lose her soulmate this early. No brothers and sisters should have to see their sibling go like this. No mother should have to bury her child.

But it’s through this insurmountable pain, that I ask all of you to understand the blessing that my Dad left for us. He lived every day like it was his last and didn’t focus on the negativity. He focused on the positivity. And that’s what I beg all of you to see now. The positives.

Jimmy Valvano, a famous college basketball coach who died of cancer, said before he passed:

“Cancer can take away all of my physical ability. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. It’s up to you to decide what to do with them.”

My Dad’s message was similar. And as cancer deteriorated his body, his spirit was never dented.

During his final weeks, in a time when he was cognizant of reality, he continued to maintain his fighting mentality and instead of smothering himself with grief of the inevitable, he was overwhelmed with happiness.

I’m proud to say my Dad’s last days were his best days. He fought with tenacity and smiled in a time of turmoil. He joked with nurses, even trying to play wingman for me a few times. He made sure to tell everyone how much he loved them. He was selfless to the very end, asking about others. Oh, and he managed to dance to Justin Bieber in his hospital bed.

In the hospital, one of my Dad’s doctors told us that he epitomized the prayer of serenity. The prayer reads: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. He knew the end was coming and he accepted it. Yet he still fought with courage, and separated reality from his mentality to never stop fighting.

He said to my mom, my Aunts and Uncles and I while he was on his death bed: “We’re so blessed.”

Blessed, he said. That’s what I’ll hold onto. I think often in life, we tend to consume ourselves with our own pain so much, that we fail to see the beauty in life. I know I’ve been guilty of this. I’m sure we all have. But I’m not going to think of how unfair it is to lose my Dad this young. I’m focusing on how blessed I was to have had such a great father for 23 years of my life. Some people weren’t blessed with the same influence and impact that my Dad had on me.

Right now, I hate God’s plan…but that doesn’t mean I don’t trust it.

This is a time for mourning, and this is a time to miss my Dad. But I’m asking all of you from the bottom of my heart, to be thankful for the gift God has given us on this day. That’s what my Dad would want, I can assure you.

My Dad’s last words to me were those that should define a father. “I’m proud of you,” he said. I told him I was proud of him, too. If I can be half the man my father was, I know I’ll come out alright.

My Dad was my best friend. There won’t be a day that goes by where I don’t think of him and miss him terribly. But I know when I run, he’ll be right there running right next to me.

So Mom, we’re going to get through this. And as we move forward in this next chapter in our lives, I’m sure Dad will be looking over us, just as he always has been. Because Dad, now you’ve got the best seat in the house.

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