On Saturday Dec. 29 at 1 pm, a Memorial Service for my father-in-law Richard Anthony Soileau (aka Rick or “Pops”) was held at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, Ohio, in which I officiated and gave the following meditation:
Since Rick had an incredible sense of humor, a wonderful laugh and a contagious smile, it seems only fitting to share a few scenes** from one of his favorite comedies, a movie he showed Deidre on their first date—My Favorite Year.
For those who are unfamiliar with this slapstick masterpiece, the film is about a washed up movie star named Alan Swann (played by the legendary Peter O’Toole) who gets an opportunity to resurrect his career by appearing on a live variety show in the 1950s.
Once a swashbuckling matinee idol whose face was plastered on magazines and newspapers, Swann spends most of his days plastered. When Benjy Stone, a huge fan of Swann’s and a junior comedy writer, promises to keep the actor out of trouble prior to the big TV debut, hilarity ensues:
[Swann walks into the wrong restroom]
Lil (studio employee): This is for ladies only!
Swann: [unzipping fly] So is *this*, ma’am, but every now and then I have to run a little water through it.
[Swann flips out when he realizes he is doing the variety show live and in front of a studio audience]
Swann: I haven’t performed in front of an audience for twenty-eight years! I played a butler. I HAD ONE LINE! [pause] I forgot it.
Stone: Don’t worry, it’ll be easy.
Swann: Easy for you. I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!
[Swann makes a confession to Stone]
Swann: Stone… I’m afraid. I’m afraid. That’s why I couldn’t get out of the car to see my Tess, my child.
Stone: Alan Swann, afraid? The Defender of the Crown? Captain from Tortuga? The Last Knight of the Round Table?
Swann: Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I’m flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I’m not that silly God-damned hero! I never was!
Stone: To *me* you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to *me*! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don’t tell me this is you life-size. I can’t use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them! And let me tell you something: you couldn’t have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere inside …you *had* that courage! Nobody’s that good an actor! You *are* that silly goddamn hero!
Rick, who was an active member of AA for 30 years, obviously resonated with My Favorite Year due to its focus on a character that struggles in funny and poignant ways with alcoholism. But Rick considered the movie a favorite because it’s central theme was hope and redemption. Alan Swann starts out as a has-been who hides inside a bottle because he is afraid of the world around him, but in the end he courageously steps up as the hero. He performs live in front of millions of people, helps fight off some gangsters who try to highjack the show and he even reunites with his estranged daughter Tess. Alan Swann makes different and better choices. He discovers hope and redemption.
Rick valued movies and stories with the themes of hope and redemption like My Favorite Year, and Shakespeare in Love and The Lord of the Rings and Love Actually because he had an intimate understanding of the motif. Richard Anthony Soileau lived and breathed it for 62 years.
He grew up dirt poor in the small town of Ville Platte, Louisiana where his crazy dad abused him regularly. Throughout adulthood, he battled sobriety and depression. He made some dumb decisions that got him in trouble and he got hoodwinked a couple of times when he tried to do the right thing for someone else. He served in the U.S. Navy in Guam and Scotland during the end of the Vietnam War, and then spent much of his career in sales and management positions, experiences that saw its share of ups and downs.
But Rick never gave up or gave in. He never got so bitter that he sought out revenge. Nor did he wallow in self-pity or cower in fear. Rick persevered through all the challenges life threw at him, even beating the cancer that reared its nasty head over and over and over again during the last 5 and a half years. He embraced the mystery of life and he decided every day what to do with the time he had been given.
He stayed true to the philosophy that one should never should confuse the way the world should be with the way the world is, and he stuck to the notion that each person has the power to make better choices for their life—to receive from God the serenity to accept the things that “I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
He rallied his AA group in Baton Rouge to bring cookies and coffee over to another member’s house for a meeting on Christmas because the individual had spent the entire day with his parents in two different emergency rooms.
He welcomed a newly recovered addict into the home he and Deidre shared in Cleveland so the person could rest and have time to get back on their feet.
He counseled people who were struggling with alcoholism or addiction or broken relationships with family members. He fed and served the poor and homeless.
The instances in which he reached out to others and literally pulled them from the brink are so numerous that we’d be here for hours recounting them all—incredible stories of hope and redemption.
With the world as broken and torn up as it is—school shootings, fiscal cliffs, war, environmental destruction, etc.—it can be quite difficult to put stock in hope and redemption. Rick, though, had more difficulty investing in anything else.
He felt deep within his soul those words heard earlier from Psalm 33 and Matthew 22. Rick believed wholeheartedly that the world was full of the steadfast love of God, that God called us to love—heart, soul and mind—both the Creator and Creation, and one’s neighbor as yourself.
That’s why he relished so many joys in life—
belting out a doo-wop tune while cooking up a fresh pot of gumbo and dirty rice;
hosting dinner parties for his friends where afterwards they would all gather in the living room to drink coffee, eat dessert and swap outrageous stories.
going to museums, plays, and movies, and traveling around the U.S. and world;
listening to the symphony orchestra inside the majestic Severance Hall, amazed that someone from Ville Platt made it to such a place;
trying and savoring delicious meals from exotic restaurants around Cleveland (some of us ate Turkish cuisine at Anatolia’s last night in his memory);
soaking the beauty of spring and early summer while planting flowers and vegetables in the back yard;
volunteering with his wife Deidre in one of the children’s classes here at First Unitarian (recalling with much laughter the little girl who asked them to press their hands together and say “FLOWERRRRRR!”
devouring good books along with articles from The New York Times and New Yorker, invigorated by the stories, opinions and ideas.
writing honestly and passionately about his life, his view on politics and his battle with cancer;
being a genuine friend by offering a helping hand or a listening ear; and
spending time with his greatest treasure—his family whom he loved and enjoyed immensely.
Nothing made the big guy happier than when he was in the arms of his beloved Deidre. He was smitten with you Deidre and vice versa every day you were together, even in these last weeks/months/years when things sucked. Rick was blessed to have you in his life, good times and bad, and to share in a love that was so special, unique and rare. He was also grateful to be a step-dad to Nate and Alicia and delighted in their accomplishments and whom they have become as young adults.
Rick’s proudest achievement was his daughter Elizabeth. He was your mentor, your protector, and your cheer-leader. The greatest dad one could ever ask for. He made it is his goal to give you everything his father never gave him. He was so honored to be your dad and to watch you grow into an amazing woman, mother, wife and friend. And he was beyond thrilled to know our 4-year-old Katie. What a pair those two were—Pops and Goose—reading stories, relaxing in a comfy chair, smelling roses or giggling and tickling one another. Katie is confident that her Pops hung the moon and I’m not sure that she’s wrong.
My father-in-law was larger than life…literally. He was 6’5 and weighed 200-something pounds. He had a hard time fitting into places the rest of us squeeze into with ease. The man’s head was always brushing against the ceiling of whatever building he stepped into or car he climbed inside (I’ll never forget him driving Elizabeth and I from our wedding to our reception in a Ford Fiesta, nearly his entire upper body arched over the steering wheel).
We’ve been telling folks that Rick wanted his body to go to science and then be cremated, (which is not inaccurate) but actually it’s because we couldn’t find a casket big enough to bury the man!
Rick Soileau was larger than life. A dear creation of God’s that could not be contained on earth. His spirit is free of suffering now and is part of that sacred light.
Was he some kind of super hero, divine and perfect without flaw, you might be wondering?
Was he a level below that, a patron saint perhaps?
No, he wasn’t.
He got angry and he hurt the feelings of those he loved.
He made amends but carried guilt about not being able to do more for or with others.
He was goofy and forgetful. And he could be annoying and frustrating to be around at times. He was, in the words of Alan Swann, a silly goddam hero.
But he was our silly goddam hero. And we will always love and be inspired by him.
**(Note: For the service, the three scenes of dialogue you just read were mashed together and shown to the congregation. So as not to get in trouble with YouTube for uploading my ripped and edited clips from the film, I decided to go with the written word and what YouTube already made available: the trailer and the scene in the ladies’ room. Enjoy piecing it together)