Saint John’s Abbey Church
Dear friends, thank you for being here today. Over the last week our family has received an overwhelming volume of messages of love and support. You have given us strength at this difficult time and having all of you here now, the people who loved Getatchew and whom he loved right back, means the world.
It is impossible to sum up the essence of my wonderful father in a few words. Adjectives that leap to mind include: principled, courageous, moral, determined, accomplished, generous, kind, sentimental, loving, joyful, curious and funny. I suspect everyone in this room has a story that illuminates one or several of these qualities.
So I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly made him so over-the-top something special. Why in his case was the sum of 1+1 so much more than 2?
My best guess is that he had as some kind of superpower the capacity to hold in his person a wide range of diverse, often incongruous, sometimes seemingly incompatible or even contradictory, experiences, emotions, allegiances and beliefs. The result was a complex, loving man who left a huge impact on the world, while connecting meaningfully with nearly everyone he met in the course of his long, blessed life.
I’ll offer a few examples.
My father carried the awful trauma he experienced in Ethiopia in 1975, yet was never bitter, either about his physical disability or about having to leave his beloved country as a refugee.
His heart stayed in Ethiopia, and he also loved Saint John’s and his friends in this community as if it, and they, were his from the beginning.
He lived with the constant pain and challenges of paraplegia, but never spoke of it and we hardly ever realized. The pain might have limited or at least defined another man, but he just did everything, said yes to everything. It is an abiding family mystery - how was he always the first one ready to leave the house, even though he needed twice as long to get ready?
He was devoted to his work, researching, writing and publishing to the last, and yet also prioritized family, friends and colleagues, who came away from time with him feeling cherished and uplifted. Many of us and especially me and my siblings mourn the loss of our biggest fan and cheerleader.
He immersed himself in Ethiopian studies, reshaping the field, and simultaneously was curious about so much else. If you went to a museum or art exhibit with him, you had to double the normal visit time, because you knew he was going to read every last word of exhibit literature.
He could be, as many have written to me this week, a father to a nation, while he was also father and grandfather to individual children with their own identities and interests. The foremost scholar of Ethiopian language and literature was much more interested in his children finding their own paths in life than he was in leading them down roads designed to keep them close to his own. I will never forget the excitement with which he researched US liberal arts colleges with me, an English major, and then how he repeated the process with schools known for math and science, when it was Sossina’s turn to apply the following year.
He was moved by so many different settings that felt equally fundamental to his very being: the mountain vistas of Ethiopia, the rolling countryside of Germany, the lakes of Minnesota, especially little Lake Kriegle, the beaches of California, the view of the East River from his apartment in New York.
He could be serious and very occasionally stern, yet quick with a wry sense of humor. Sarah Pruett, our long-time neighbor, shared with me their last text exchange, in which she wished him happy birthday this past April “from your neighbor on the lake”, and he responded “thank you! And I have good news, do you know that we’re going to be neighbors in eternity?” because we had just decided on a cemetery lot adjacent to one Sarah and John have reserved – something he saw as a very big selling point, I might add.
He loved us, his lucky immediate family, intensely, and that love fueled enormous capacity for love and generosity he extended to many, many more.
And as a final example, he was devoted to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and also chose to be laid to rest here, in this beautiful Catholic community of Saint John’s, which he called home.
In short, my father was blessed with the most powerful life force. He absorbed everything that came his way and always came out stronger, more receptive to life and more open to others wherever and however encountered. He fully inhabited every space he entered; he truly was a citizen of our shared world.
Even as this day approached, as he absorbed the imminence of his death, he gave more than seems possible. I will forever be grateful for three final priceless gifts to us: the time to prepare for his departure, so we could say all that needed to be said to one another, the chance to love and care for him as a team in a way that brought us closer together as a family, and finally, the perfect clarity about his satisfaction and delight with the life he lived. As he said, no regrets, and preferably, no tears.
I’ll close with the words at the end of his obituary.
In recent weeks he let us know that he was ready to transition on from this life, and that he would meet his Maker with the words of St. Paul in mind: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. To which we can without hesitation say: yes, beloved husband, father, Ababa, brother, uncle, friend, colleague, our wondim tila, ye Shenkora jegna, you have.
Printed in a local newspaper in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1970. Getatchew was a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma for that year.
At my and Jean's 40th birthday celebration, 2004