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“Cassius Clay,” my father declared, “KO’ed Moore in four. I was there. Ringside.” Annoyed at hearing the thousandth incarnation of this story, I rolled my eyes. My father loved telling stories. If you let him, he would talk you up all night. “Muhammad,” he would say “really was the greatest. Woulda beat Smokin’ Joe too, if Frazier hadn’t knocked him down in the 15th.” Friends, family, my teachers, the librarian, the mail carrier-anyone within earshot suffered the fate of listening to my father’s elaborate stories. At best, I found these stories sufferable; at worst, simply unbearable. I came to understand later that my father’s stories were a small fraction of his larger than life personality. No one could mistake his six-foot frame, his slicked pepper gray hair or his tortoise-shell Ray-Bans complete with Croakies. With pockets ever-full of Lifesaver mints, my father was a real character-which made it that much harder to do him justice when I spoke at his funeral.
I am no stranger to public speaking. As Debate President and Student Council President, I regularly address large audiences. However, the speech I most wanted to be remembered by did not involve approving a new draft constitution or rallying underclassmen in to serving their community; it was about the man who gave me life. The speech’s difficulty did not arise from lack of context: a year spent eating dinners under the florescent glow of hospital cafeteria lights had acclimated me to the idea that my father’s passing was coming. Rather, its difficulty grew because it required me to synthesize a vastly complex man into a ten-minute eulogy. I knew in giving the speech, I was towing a line-I needed to express emotion without letting it overcome me. In the week leading up to the ceremony, I hashed out draft after draft of my speech, becoming increasingly frustrated with the futility of my efforts to represent my father. The day before the funeral, it finally hit me: maybe making a speech about my father was impossible. Perhaps, my best strategy would be to make a speech that conveyed part of the whole, that certain spark which made my father so unique.
I arrived at Unity Temple and greeted well-wishers without showing any of the anxiety that plagued me. When all was quiet, I ascended the steps to the podium at the head of the chapel. I collected myself, removed the notes from my right lapel and took a deep breath. Then I dove headfirst into the speech that would define me. “I am Antonio Jubencio HernÃ¡ndez,” my voice trembled as I began, “son of Eugenio HernÃ¡ndez, and I’d like to tell you some stories my father told me.” For the next ten minutes, pausing only to ensure my composure, I delivered some of my father’s favorite anecdotes in the same didactic tone I had heard my father use all his life. As I told them, I believe I gained some redemption from all those times I had rolled my eyes at my father’s convoluted recitals. Although the stories that I told at Unity Temple lacked the physical presence of the Ray-Bans, they were part of my father. By delivering my speech in the way I did, I was acknowledging the fact that these stories were also part of me. As I look back upon it now, I believe that it was not I who delivered the speech. The words belonged to my father and I was simply Plato transcribing Aristotle, Jefferson citing Locke, or Muhammad playing the poet.
I plan to embarrass my kids with stories of boxing matches and World Series past. When they inevitably roll their eyes, I will know exactly what my father knew: a good story lasts lifetimes.
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