I wasn’t sure I could do it.
It’s quite daunting, really. Summing up your father’s life in a speech in front of friends and family. Summing up 80 years of an incredible man who’s lived an incredible life.
I wasn’t sure I could do it.
All of it. Any of it.
I’m a writer, so I figured I could handle it. But, that may have been a double edged sword. I was searching for perfection. I wanted this speech to be perfect. To be true to the man who I’ve looked up to my entire life. I had three weeks to write the speech. It’s a process getting a loved one from one state to another for burial. Nonetheless, it gave me more time.
I tried not to put too much pressure on myself and wrote when I felt it. I didn’t force myself to write. I just went with it – and wrote when called to.
Once finished, I focused on actually getting up and speaking. Yes, I’ve given many speeches – but, this was different. It was all emotion and I started to get very anxious. My husband – my amazing husband – promised to get up and finish it if I just couldn’t. That took pressure off. Still, I found myself really doubting my ability to get it done.
On the morning of the service, I was a wreck. For many reasons. Not the speech, though. I’d found peace in the moment and was ready. I wanted to make my dad proud.
Standing up there, looking out at the packed church – all those people – all those wonderful people who’d come to support us and say goodbye – was really something special. I realized then and there – that as much as I thought it was a gift from me to my dad – it was actually a gift from my dad to me.
A gift that will be a part of me forever.
I shared my dad’s story. It was, it turns out, the most important story I’ve ever told. I was so happy to share his life. Many of those folks in the church didn’t know some of the details of my father’s life.
When someone we love passes away – it is so important to help keep their memory alive. To remind people of the life that person lived. I want to do that for my dad. I miss him every second of every day but I want his memory to live on.
That’s why I’ve decided to share my eulogy here. So everyone can realize what a great man he was. So it’s recorded – and can never be taken away. So my children and someday grandchildren can read it as often as they’d like. I’ve added pictures to go along with it. This, like my dad, will live on forever.
I did ad-lib plenty – and that is not included in this. I spoke for 33 minutes. And it is 33 minutes that I will never forget. For every fear, doubt, and pang of anxiety I felt – I’m so happy that I was able to do this. So grateful.
Our father loved life.
He loved everything about it. The adventure. The food. The parties. The sunshine. The music. The work. The beauty all around. And the people. He was the ultimate people person – he loved everyone he met. Didn’t care where they were from, what they looked like – what they had or didn’t have. He loved them. And they loved him. That’s why so many are here today with us – and my sisters, brother and I appreciate that very much. So thank you for being here. I’m honored to be up here speaking about my father’s life. He was a character – one of a kind.
My grandparents – came here from Italy – they sailed to Ellis Island just a few years before my father was born. They came in search of the American Dream. And they found it. In a community that embraced them. Right here in Niagara Falls – a community where they built a beautiful home. And a beautiful family with three children. My Aunt Dena – who we lost seven years ago. My dad. And their little sister, who died when she was a young child. Aunt Maryann was my namesake. I often tried to ask my dad about her, but he’d always tear up, it was hard for him to talk about – even all these years later. It still affected him very much.
From looking at the pictures, which my cousin JT found very recently – they looked like the perfect family. So happy. So well dressed. A scrappy Italian kid from the falls – my dad had to be tough – Street smart. I’m told he was a bit of a scoundrel as a youngster – getting into some trouble with his friends – although I find that hard to believe.
Dad left for the Air Force when he was 18. He loved serving his county. He didn’t talk much about his experiences, but we know he was proud of his service. And we are too.
Dad came home to work with his father in the trucking business. It meant the world to my dad; working alongside and learning from his father. They found success, too. Friona Brothers helped to build much of this city, I’m very proud to say. It was the beginning of a decades long career in trucking and paving. It set the bar for his life, too – and his future work with his son; my brother, Phil.
Soon Dad created his own family. It turned out that he was a single father before that was even a thing – raising four children – beginning when we were little – ages 2 to 11. But, as was the case in my dad’s life; incredible challenges – for whatever the reason – didn’t stop him. We know he sacrificed a lot for us – but he never complained. I never once heard him complain about that – he loved us all so much.
He even made it fun for us. He’d often pile all the neighborhood kids in his Lincoln Continental and take us for ice cream. We’d pile in like a clown car, too. We’d cruise for ice cream listening to ‘Benny and the Jets’. I love those memories. Our childhood was amazing. At least that’s how I remember it.
Other kids were learning math and science from their parents and we were learning how to pick a trifecta and fill out a football pool. Both by the way – do take some math skills and surely there is science behind it. So, basically it’s the same thing.
I know – no matter what – that my dad did the best he could. Always.
He moved to Florida 20 years ago – another example of picking up the pieces, refusing to stay down. As the Sinatra song goes – that’s life. Riding high in April, shot down in May, – he always changed the tune and was back on top by June. He was resilient. Determined. And I loved that about him. That scrappy Italian kid from the falls wouldn’t give up – ever. That’s my dad. His entire life. He was across the country but I saw him all the time. At least once a month. He’d send plane tickets and we’d go to Florida for a few days or meet him in some amazing location – Bahamas. Didn’t matter – wherever he was – we wanted to be.
He found great success in Florida, buying a paving company and turning it into something beyond his expectations. He loved it. We had a service in Florida for my dad just two days after he passed away. With just one day notice – A group of his former employees came to pay their respects. Some haven’t worked for dad in ten or 15 years. But with just one day notice they showed up. They loved him – he cared about the guys, he knew everything about them – they shared everything, and if they needed someone to talk to, or had a problem, they’d go see my dad. He’d always take care of them. I asked one long-time worker why it was important to come to the service and what made my dad a good boss. He said my dad commanded respect. But he also respected those who worked for him. He cared about them. Loved them. That’s why they came to say goodbye. That’s something special.
Whether you knew him as Mr. Friona, Phil, Big Phil, Junior, pops or a myriad of other nicknames – you knew his zest for life.
He did the best Jerry Lewis impression- he loved the Yankees, Frank Sinatra and a good muddled old fashion. Most of all he loved his family.
Teri was his number one – in birth order!! He loved her cooking – and how she was always game for anything. They were both similar, both passionate, both so loving. They were a great pair.
Her son, Michael moved to Florida to work with him and they were great pals. Legend has it – they may or may not have taken a road trip just a few years ago to see a Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck rally. Michael is mum on the details of that trip so I can only imagine what it was like.
Jess, Erica and Ayden were all very special to dad too.
Phil and dad were the best of friends. They worked and played together! They had a bond like no other. They could finish one another’s sentences sometimes. Seeing them side by side was really something special. Honestly, I think the only thing they ever disagreed about was the fact that dad was a die-hard bills fan while Phil was a dol-fan – I mean Miami fans aren’t even real fans anyway – they don’t even go to the games. and I think it’s safe to say if we took a vote here – most would be -hashtag – teamdad.
Gina, was like a daughter to dad – around our family as long as I can remember, she always helped take care of him – and he loved her and their beautiful girls Angela and Farrah very much.
Paula was the only person allowed to boss dad around. He’d always act like it drove him nuts – but he loved it and we all knew it. She’s that middle child who apparently can often feel invisible or left out – Paula formed a campaign as a child to ensure that was never the case!! She played a huge role in dad’s life. From what he ate to what he wore. And you know what, he loved it. I guess it’s an Italian thing. I used to laugh when she’d say, no dad you can’t do that. Or wear that. He’d listen though. She did everything for him and the fact that I was 1400 miles away – makes me eternally grateful for that. She took great care of him – with her husband Robert whom my dad adored – by her side – Paula, thank you.
Nicole and Jamie he loved you girls so much. And Jimmy O – you always had a special place is Papa’s heart.
I was the baby. Of course, he reminded everyone of that quite often. He did so much for me in my life. It’s cliche’ to say we were best friends – but we really were. I could and did talk to him about anything and everything. He loved my husband, Scott and I think was very much relieved that he came along because my dad knew the girls and I were well taken care of.
He loved my girls and would do anything for them. Alexa and Maria had a wonderful connection with their papa.
I’m eternally grateful that Emma got to spend some time with him and get to know him. I’m sad that Ella won’t have that chance – but as it turns out – the only grandchild that didn’t get to know him – is the only one who looks just like him. His spitting image. That is an incredible gift – in fact – I remember the day we told dad we were having another baby…
3 years and 5 months ago – very early in our pregnancy. We went on vacation to see dad – Scott and I took him out to dinner and the 3 of us had the best time. We told him we were having another baby and he was so happy. He was literally the ONLY person who didn’t ask – are you nuts? Another baby?? Nope. He was so happy. He loved babies. He was sure it was going to be a boy – he wanted us to name him Phil. The funny thing is – Ella is known as little Phil around here. Dad would love that.
He had a heart attack the next morning, his health deteriorated quickly. He never went back home. It’s been a struggle ever since – but he will not be defined by Alzheimer’s and Dementia – that was such a small part of Phil Friona and not who he was. Besides – in typical Phil Friona fashion – he told Alzheimer’s where to go – and in the end, he came back to us.
The very last words he said were, “I love you too, Mary. I promise.” He knew me. And Teri, Phil and Paula. We all spent his last few days together – in that hospital room – holding his hand, talking to him, sharing stories and laughing – and for those who know us – that in and of itself is pretty darn miraculous. Dad would have loved that.
He was such a good dad. Mainly because he cared so much. He was also a wonderful papa. In the eyes of his grandchildren – he could do no wrong. That includes wearing black knee socks to the beach. He’d play a game he made up probably 25 years ago – hukka-bukka beanstalk. He’d hide a coin and then tell the kids if they were hot or cold in finding it. They’d play for hours.
He loved thoroughbred horse racing and his time as an owner was certainly a great part of his life. We’d all meet up at the races, in West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Somewhereovertherainbow – she was amazing – and a winner for quite a while. He loved it. We all did. He spent a few summers in Saratoga, too. The summer Scott and I first started dating – I remember he asked me what I was up to or whatever – I told him I was headed to Saratoga – it’s like a 4 hour drive – he asked when I was coming back and I said tomorrow. I’d do that a few times a week! And sometimes, I’d call Paula on the ride and complain a bit about the drive and the time and all the other things I could be doing – but I am so thankful that I went every single time I did. I’d get there, we’d go out for dinner and then sit at the bar and talk for hours. We’d make friends with people and just have so much fun. Then the next morning we’d go to the races – what great memories that I cherish every day. He was loved in that community. He was so nice to everyone. The jockeys and trainers – and the cab drivers and waitresses. Everyone.
A long-time member of the Republican Party – he was always up for a debate but you’d never win. Even when you were on the same side! He loved that he shared a birthday with Ronald Reagan. And loved fox news. He would always ask me, Paula, Michael and Scott to email his letters to Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sarah Palin – and would say to me – I need you to call Bill O’Reilly for me. I’d say dad I don’t know him you can’t just call him – he’d always say – what kind of a reporter are you. Ouch.
He gave back too – his favorite charity was wounded warriors project. He’d often cry when he’d hear about military members being injured or killed in the line of duty. He was a true patriot.
He loved this country. That patriotism never wavered. Ever.
There’s just no doubt, this world is a lot less fun without my dad. They’re dancing in Heaven sure, but here on earth – there’s just not nearly as much charm. We will miss his dance moves, his jokes – God he was funny – his kindness. He had this incredible way of making others feel good about themselves. Feel important. And special. His coined phrase is send it to Hollywood, man! If you showed him a picture of one of the kids – or his own pictures in fact – he’d say send it to Hollywood man.
He was stubborn. And a bit old-fashioned. He refused to open any Christmas gifts until Christmas morning. We’d beg – because of course, if he didn’t – we couldn’t. He never gave in on that. Gave in on just about everything else if we asked enough – but not that.
The truth is – my dad wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But He had the biggest heart, most gentle soul and a feisty spirit. I’ve heard so many stories over the past three weeks that have blanketed me with comfort. So many. I went to see my accountant – a Falls guy who’s known dad for 50 or more years. He told me that he always envied my dad because he knew how to have fun. He did have fun. He was often the oldest guy in the room, but the youngest at heart. He taught us how to play craps, figure out the over and under, and enjoy life. He gave us many wonderful adventures.
In February- we celebrated our father’s 80th birthday with a celebration at my sister Paula’s house. It was – and I guess we kind of knew it at the time – his sendoff. It was a fabulous party with many of his friends, family and former employees – he knew every person. Somehow, he just knew.
He wore this bow tie that day – it’s one of his many possessions and articles of clothing that we split up – this and his sweaters we will all wear are nice to have, but we are really wrapped up in his love – enough to last several lifetimes.
We had so many adventures. He brought us to Puerto Rico where we went horseback riding in the rainforest, we spent New Year’s Eve in the Bahamas, Christmas time in New York, My niece Jessica’s 30th birthday in the Islands, we played craps and saw Cirque de Solet in Vegas, watched the sun set in Key West – and I could go on and on. We made memories. And he did it all for us.
I hope if you take anything from my dad’s life – it is the importance of making memories. As a family. Because I’m telling you – in the end, that’s all you have. While in hospice those few days, nights too – we shared those memories with dad. We laughed, cried, and remembered. And we never ran out of memories.
That’s because my father loved life.
Everything about it.