An old letter in my father's effects

November 18, 2001

Dear Dad,

Happy Birthday! As you know, last Saturday was my birthday, my 54th. I was lucky enough to get one of the nicest gifts I ever received, a birthday letter from my daughter. Her example has inspired this letter to you. While I’ll try not to plagiarize too much from her, most of what she had to say to me applies doubly to you.

You’ve lived eighty years, something I’ll bet you never expected, and I’m sure I speak for all my siblings when I say you should know by now what a great father you have been to us and how much we love and admire you.

When we were young you and Mum gave us a wonderful, safe, warm home, and plenty of loving attention, while at the same time you challenged us to learn to use our minds. Some of my fondest memories in life, which will always be with me, are your readings from Dr. Doolittle and the Swallows and Amazon books.

You gave us every material advantage without spoiling us. You (amazingly) found a way to send us to private schools and put us through college, and now you are well on your way to doing the same for our children. I know at the time how little I personally valued those wonderful gifts and what poor use I put them too, but in spite of myself, they have been a huge asset in my life for which my appreciation increases every year. Even long after we reached supposed adulthood you have unflinchingly been there with whatever material support we needed, as I have very recent reason to acknowledge.

But however much support you have given us, you have never tried to interfere in or control our lives. Instead you have been a wonderful example of how to live.

You and Mum have been the model of a strong, loyal, loving, respectful, and supportive marriage. You have always taken pleasure in each other’s company - sharing travel, cruising adventures, concerts, hiking and picnicking. While you often took us kids along, you also showed that you had a life beyond us, relieving us from the pressure of having your life depend on us and our success or failure.

You built a successful business, saw it steadfastly through good times and bad, succeeding with honesty and hard work. You treated risk and reward with equal apparent equanimity. You were respected by your customers and employees alike. When the time came, you sold your business to someone you had trained so well he continued to build on your success.

Not withstanding your success, you have always lived modestly. You and Mum are still happily enjoying the same house you bought more than 50 years ago. You have always picked your clothing, you cars, and your boats for their suitability to your needs, rather their ability to impress others.

You have always seen the world as place for laughter, but never at the expense of another. When we were just children you addicted us all to laughter, a vice that has kept us all from taking ourselves too seriously, and vastly enriched our lives forever. I consider my sense of humor to be the one personality trait I would most hate to lose, and I owe what of that trait I have entirely to you.

Obviously, love of the sea and of sailing has been important in my life, and, again, I have you to thank for giving it to me, whether by nature or nurture I can’t say. Again, it is something for which I will always be grateful.

In these and many other ways you have been a wonderful model to all of your children and to their children as well. Thank you so much for being such a wonderful father.

With greatest respect and affection,

June 20, 2004 in Sandy Fowler | Permalink | Comments (0)

Anne's Homily

They were amazed and afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ Luke 8: 25

My father was not really in charge of the ocean or the weather. But because he understood the sea and the wind so completely, because he studied them carefully and respected their power, because he devoted so much intelligence and passion to things nautical, he did seem almost to tame the elements.

But he knew better. He knew awful majesty of the sea and the caprices of the sky, and he took care to be canny, and prepared. And so he prospered on the water throughout his long and rich and happy life, cruising and racing and day tripping, exploring and adventuring, a risk-taker but never a daredevil. He introduced several generations of friends and family to the pleasures of sailing, he entertained us and instructed us and gave us innumerable gifts of delight and memory.

And we always felt safe. Sandy surrounded us with the comfort of his expertise, his even-temperedness, his good humor, his kindness and his patience, and we always felt safe. Because, unlike Jesus, Dad never fell asleep at the helm.

And what was true of yachting was true of the rest of life, as well. My father was the least fearful person I’ve ever known – not foolhardy, not at all, but, it seemed, never afraid, rarely anxious, always intrepid. And that calm, modest, steady sense of personal confidence was contagious, I think.

Contagious, and attractive. He married a woman with her own courage and passion, her own resolute adventuresome spirit, and together they raised us – five of us! – they raised us all to believe we could do anything we wanted, achieve anything we truly cared about. They encouraged us to explore, to go on our own adventures, to take risks, but not recklessly. They set high standards for us, by word and example, but they never reacted harshly when we got off course temporarily. We always felt safe.

And so it was in Sandy’s professional life as well. He was a natural leader and he inspired loyalty in his associates, confidence in his customers. Coupled with his intrepidness was his absolute integrity, his genuineness; this was a man absolutely without guile, without indirection. He was so secure in himself, he saw so clearly, that evasion and equivocation were foreign to him. He was absolutely trustworthy.
How does such character develop? It’s one of God’s mysteries, I think, even to those of us who knew Dad longest and most intimately. We all know that Sandy was not a religious man, not in the church-going sense, and at the same time we all know the strength of his spirit, a strength and a spirit that continued to grow and deepen during the trials of his long illness.

Perfect love casts out fear, St Paul tells us. And maybe that’s the key to Sandy. Dad loved life. He loved it without restraint, without reservation. He loved our mother more than anything in the world, he loved his children, he loved sailing, he loved his work, he loved all his many undertakings. He was so unequivocally enthusiastic that perhaps there wasn’t much room left in his soul for doubt or fear.

He loved life. When he heard the cancer diagnosis six years ago, almost the first thing he said was, I’ve had a wonderful life. And he did. He made it wonderful, full of wonder. And he made it wonderful for all of us who were privileged to know him and to love him.

Jesus said, I came that they might have life, and have it with abundance. Abundant life, that was God’s gift to Sandy, and Sandy’s gift to us. May he rest in peace, May he be with God.


June 20, 2004 in Sandy Fowler | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ellen's Eulogy

Several years ago, a colleague of mine was taking care of her aging parents. One day she said to her mother, “You’ve changed as you’ve gotten older.” Her mother replied, “We’re just the same as we always were – it’s just that all the topsoil has washed off!”

As Dad got older, the topsoil washed off and you could see his essence. A couple of things stand out to me.

As always, there was his sense of humor. The last time I took him to the hospital, he had just learned that this was it, things couldn’t be fixed. We went through the interminable admissions process, which ended with a woman putting a hospital bracelet on his wrist and saying, “We have to make sure your bracelet has the right name on it, so please read that, sir, and tell me if it’s your name.”

Dad peered at the bracelet for a long moment, and finally said, “By golly, it is!!”

After the topsoil washed off, one thing that stood out about Dad was the pleasure he took in life. Of course, there was the boat. We took a picture of the boat with Mt. Desert Island as background into his hospital room. For a while it was propped up against a lamp, and it would occasionally slip down. When Dad noticed that, he’d say, “Put the boat up properly!”

But he also loved little things, like going to Spring Brook Farm for eggs and milk. The farmer’s name was Fowler (no relation), which Dad enjoyed. And he loved hearing the farmer say, “The girls are layin’ today.”

And Dad loved bugging Mum by watching the weather every night at 6:10 during the cocktail hour. Mum would say, “Why do we have to watch the weather again? We know what the weather is going to be – we heard about it this morning on the radio.” And Dad would say, “You heard about it – I didn’t have my hearing aids in, so I didn’t hear a thing.”

Another thing that stood out was Dad’s love for and delight in people. In the last couple of years, when people were around he missed a lot of what was said. But he would look at you with a smile on his face and in his eyes, as if he knew you were about to say the most interesting thing in the world. He would shine with the pure joy of being with you.

Also in the last couple of years, Dad had a lot of doctor’s appointments – he and Mum joked that they were becoming authorities on Portland’s medical community. Despite the circumstances, Dad really cared about his doctors and their staff, and they cared about him. A couple of months ago, Dad found out that one of his doctors liked action mysteries and had never read anything by Robert B. Tannenbaum. Dad bought a paperback by Tannenbaum, and when he was in the hospital he asked me to take it to the doctor’s office. He said, “Tell him I don’t want him to go through life never having read a Robert B. Tannenbaum.”

Most of all, Dad delighted in his family and friends. Even in the last weeks and days of his life, when someone came in to see him, his face would light up and he’d say, “Hello, so & so!” and reach out to hold a hand.

That’s what I saw in Dad when the topsoil had washed off:

• His joy in life
• His love and delight in friends and family

I’d like to close with a verse from the Bible that reminds me of Dad. It’s a beautiful, vivid image:

And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
(II Samuel 23:4)

June 20, 2004 in Sandy Fowler | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Below are my brother and my eulogies to our father at his memorial service yesterday. It was a gorgeous June day in Maine. My sister Susie did a reading, but prefaced it by saying that she had been glad to to see some clouds rolling in as she drove down to Falmouth from her home in Waldoboro, because the day had been so beautiful that she knew the last place our father would have wanted to be on a beautiful June day was in church.

And she read from Luke 8:22-25:

"Now it came to pass on a certain day, that he went into a ship with his disciples: and he said unto them, Let us go over unto the other side of the lake. And they launched forth.
"But as they sailed he fell asleep: and there came down a storm of wind on the lake; and they were filled with water, and were in jeopardy.
"And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm.
"And he said unto them, Where is your faith? And they being afraid wondered, saying one to another, What manner of man is this! for he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him. "

I should add about my father that not only would he not want to have been there, he would not have been there.

June 18, 2004 in Sandy Fowler | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben's Eulogy

As most of you know, our father was not a man of many words. He was not quiet, or shy, or unaware, but he only talked about what he had to. By his own admission, he did not openly discuss his feelings because he really did not have, or care to learn, the language. Mostly, I suspect, because he saw little logic in emotions. To him, emotions arrived without provocation and generally seemed to defy common sense; there wasn’t much you could do about them. For him to talk about feelings was to dwell on the unchangeable. What he wanted was to change his feelings; to do something; to act so as to pass them by and settle life down again, to know where he was headed. Talking about his feelings didn’t solve anything.

In my younger days, I saw his way of dealing with his feelings as a lack of awareness. Of course, now I know this is not true. His was a way of living that required a clear knowledge of self. Not only did he know what his feelings were, he knew how he could best cope with them. Crisis? Go sailing. Angry? Chop wood. Frustrated or depressed? Build furniture or a boat. And it is thus that I have come to understand my father’s feelings. He expressed his knowledge of who he was and how he felt by what he did. He managed always to get his point across, whether through the one sentence letters he was famous for in our family, or through some other means. Generally, he made himself clear: how he felt; what he wanted; what he knew to be true; what he was resolved to live with; and how he chose to live.

When Dad first was diagnosed with cancer, I almost immediately became a doom-sayer. A couple of times a year I would get a call that he was in the hospital for this or that and I would think: “Well, this is it.” I would head to the Foreside house or the hospital and find Dad, unalterably the same. Same sense of humor, same ability to face his lot and move ahead with his life, never complaining or whining. But still, for five years, I insisted on assuring myself that his death was just around the corner. Clearly I felt sorrier for myself that he did for himself. I should have known that he would eventually tell us when he knew it was finally his time, as he put it, to “go up.”

Now, other than the usual truthfulness, honesty and etc., my father taught me two things that I have taken to heart nearly all my life. The first is; NEVER rake the lawn. The second is: contemplate only as long as necessary, make the decision, and move on. Do not bother to try to forestall the inevitable.

He made his decision on May 13th, at 11:45 AM, with all the dispatch and allusion, indirectness and clarity through which we knew him. He made his decision and got his point across with nine words. He made it clear that he knew it was time for us to start saying our final goodbyes. And having said these nine words he took to his bed and basically never got out again. It was his time to die.

He said: “Well, I guess it’s time to sell the boat.”

I wrote the following poem for my father in 1995, it has been one of my few published poems. This, I think, honors the subject far more than the writer. I read it thinking about where I believe Sandy is right now.

Old Boat, Old Friend

You have never asked
for my gentle boatwright hands
to caulk a weeping seam,
though you lend me your mooring
or show me a quiet cove
in which to ride out a storm.

You have never sought passage
with me as your navigator,
though I have sailed
many miles rocking your heart
in my mind.

However often I have entered
harbors alone in the fog,
you have ridden as my Bo’ sun,
sometimes my mate,
Sometimes my captain.

So, I wonder what it will be like
when you are gone;
when your ribs can no longer
support the press of the sea,
your sails, the weight of the wind.
When I can never know
how the trim of my sails
has helped your speed.

Still, I hope I will be able
to sail you one last time
in a soft breeze,
with a fair tide,
to a calm cove,
to help you set your anchor
in the deep mud of the earth.

June 18, 2004 in Sandy Fowler | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sandy Fowler

There is very little I can say to do justice to the life of my father, so I’ll be brief.

After his family, who all know the depth of his love, he loved the sea best.

He loved to race sail boats. He was competitive, and he loved to win. But even more he loved the companionship of the shared endeavor.

He was never garrulous about his feelings, but the fact that he would return time and again to the wet, cold, miserable, nauseous experience ocean racing can often be is ample evidence of how he felt about his carefully chosen shipmates. He knew the strength of the bonds that a shared struggle can forge.

And always he was the mildest of skippers, always forbearing of those of us with less strength, less ability, weaker stomachs. Though he loved to describe himself as ‘overbearing in victory, surly in defeat’, he was, in fact, anything but.

He also loved to cruise, and spent much more time at that than at racing. But whether racing or cruising, whenever he was on a boat under way, he glowed. He glowed with the pure joy of just being there.

I was lucky to have been able to sail thousands of miles with him, basking in that glow. Certainly, it kindled a fire in my own heart - a love of the sea that was one of his greatest gifts to me.

Another even greater gift he gave me was his love of laughter. He laughed with abandon. His grandson, AJ, recently reminded us how he would give himself so totally to laughter that he would often have to remove his glasses and wipe the tears from his eyes.

My wife remembers an early experience of his humor: we were staying at Sandy’s house with our newborn daughter. On seeing her, some visitor to the house exclaimed a little too obviously for Sandy, “Look, it’s a baby.” Sandy replied, “No, it’s really an actor we hired to impersonate a baby.”

Everyone who knew Sandy has such memories. I think the best way to honor those memories is to carry his humor and joy out of this church today and into the world.

June 17, 2004 in Sandy Fowler | Permalink | Comments (0)