This Sunday will be my first Father’s Day without my own father, Harry Shapira, who died of cancer on October 13, 2013 in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. My dad, the executive vice president of our family’s distilled spirits company Heaven Hill, was 66. He died a month before the birth of my second child, Hilary. Below are remarks I delivered earlier this month at Hilary’s baby-naming celebration at my home in Washington, with my wife Caroline and our oldest daughter, Margot, 2.
Caroline and I flew down to Louisville last summer, and we decided to tell Mom and Dad a secret. Over dinner one night, we broke the news: We were naming our second child after Dad’s deceased father David Shapira. She’d be born in two months, but we already had picked out her name: Daphne Shapira.
My dad teared up. Was he proud that his father David - one of the founders of our family bourbon business - would live on through our second daughter Daphne? Or, was Dad, who was 10 years into battling cancer, crying because he knew, deep down, he wouldn’t get to meet her?
I chose to believe Dad cried because he was happy. I imagined he cried because he was excited to come here to our home and attend her baby-naming party, just like the baby-naming party we had in late 2012 for Margot.
I imagined Dad would wear the same dark suit, the same red tie. He’d stand on this same back deck and pose for the same family picture. A picture that I cherish: On the left, Mom, Caroline, Me, Margot, my brother Adam. On the far right, Dad.
About six weeks after we told Dad about Daphne, he began his decline. In the hospital room, I leaned into his ear. Our daughter will be named after you. Her name will start with an H, I told him. Dad was too ill to say anything. I hoped he understood the implications: That we were honoring him. And that it was okay for him to stop struggling.
Shortly afterward, still in the hospital room, I began writing the newspaper article I had always dreaded. But what photo would accompany Dad’s obituary?
We opened our laptops. There was the photo of Dad swimming in the pool with Margot. Dad sitting crossed leg on the floor playing with Margot. Dad sitting in the pews of Adas Israel Congregation, holding Margot.
And there it was: The photo of Dad standing on this back deck, wearing the dark suit and red tie for Margot’s baby naming party. We cropped out Mom. We cropped out Caroline. We cropped out me. Then Margot. Then Adam. So there was just Dad. Only a few of us reading his obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal or in the funeral program knew that the photo was not a corporate mug shot.
The photo came from here, on this back deck, on a day like this.
I have struggled so much with Hilary’s name. For so long, the name has signified the sadness of numbers: My father lived 10 years with cancer, but died 31 days short of seeing the child named after his father. But over time, I’ve embraced the new name. For one thing, Dad was a Republican, so I take some joy in knowing Dad must be amused by the name Hilary. (To accommodate Dad’s political leanings, we spelled her name with one “l” not two.) For another, we gave Hilary the Hebrew name Civia, which means deer, but is also the feminine version of my Dad’s Hebrew name, Tsvi.
I also have learned to see the value in getting to name your own child after your own parent. I have a built-in reason to tell his story over and over again: how he loved bourbon, the art of making it, and telling to anyone who’d listen the story of his own father and his father’s four brothers who built Heaven Hill, the country’s largest family-owned operated and producer of distilled spirits.
And even though Dad was 31 days shy of missing Hilary’s birth, there are the happy numbers of his life: He loved holding the three grandchildren he got to see when he was alive. He loved his wife of 42 years. His mother-in-law of 93. His own mother of 100. And Adam and me, his two sons.
So, I hope Hilary’s name reminds me to share what Dad was like. And whenever someone asks Hilary about her namesake, I hope that Hilary will make her own father proud, and use the same lines that are often heard in this house, the kind of lines that someone says if they happen to be newspaper people, the kind of lines that someone says over a glass of bourbon.
Who were you named after?
“Let me tell you all about it,” Hilary will say. “It’s a good story.”