My father, Morton Harris died on April 14, 2019. He was diagnosed with bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) back in 2008. Surgery removed a tumour but it had returned by the summer of 2018. He spent the last two weeks of his life in the hospital where he eventually died at the age of 88.
I want to thank the doctors and nurses at the Odette Cancer Center (specifically the Upper GI Cancer Care team) and C5 trauma ward at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. Everyone in these units cared for my father and he couldn’t have paid for better care. I welcome donations to be made in my father’s name here.
The following is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral.
It’s the best tribute I could muster for my father, who was and is still a huge inspiration.
To consider my father’s legacy, I would have to start with his work and his life as a visual artist and educator. He began teaching at risk youth in the Bronx in 1959. He taught children for his entire career, including his grandchildren. And his sons. I can’t speak for my brother, but I wasn’t a very good art student. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to just draw a tree in a field. He wanted me, just like any other student of his, to start by drawing lines of perspective and scale and to consider the location of the light source. I didn’t have time for that. I just wanted to draw a tree in a field.
However, whether I knew it or not, the creative DNA of our father had already transferred to us. We both started playing music, even together as a rhythm section who backed up our dad a couple times while he played piano. Both my brother and I have been writing down words in one form or another for the majority of our lives. As most of you know, my brother has been an actor for all of his adult life. Me I fell into a visually creative career not unlike my dad. In fact, I learned recently that I am a third generation studio artist. Before starting his lampshade business in New York City, our grandfather designed women’s wear catalogs. One of our dad’s first jobs was in advertising on Madison Avenue as a mechanical and paste-up man. I stumbled into the same profession and industry around 20 years ago. I love what I do, but I found my true passion much later when I first picked up a camera and decided to learn to use it as an artistic tool. Something happened when I put my eye to the viewfinder and found I could make a photograph. Again and finally, my eye began to hear my father’s voice as he told me to ponder perspective and scale, light and shadow. When I aimed my camera at someone with a classically beautiful face, I saw him pointing to an old film star in one of his silver screen books with deep weathered lines and unusual features and saying “Now that’s a great face”.
Few people have an eye like he did. But realizing that I got a bit of his gave me the confidence to believe that I was a good photographer and that I’d found something that I was meant to do. From him I learned that if you knew what you were doing, there was no reason to not believe you were good at what you did.
Pretty much every visit to my parents’ home included a showing of his latest drawing or painting. He was proud of his work and despite not finding the prosperity he had hoped for or even expected, he never stopped. Before his health started declining in the early fall, he was telling me of his latest idea of how he was going to try to make a huge sale. He had plans and no matter how impossible they seemed, he believed in himself enough to try.
That was a source of frustration when I was young and dumb and an inspiration now when I see that no matter what anyone said, he got back to work with the enthusiasm and belief of someone full of victories. I recently described him as undefeated despite having few wins. So, if I’m to look past what I learned or inherited from my father in terms of creativity, the thing that I, that we all need to take from him is this. His resilience, his irrepressibility, his total lack of fear to dust himself off and try again.
There’s something my father once said during a tumultuous time in our home. He said “It takes a lot of matches to burn down the world”. I never forgot that. Hearing him say that is what turned my petty teenage resentments into admiration. It was a glimpse into the depth of his well of strength and I began believing that he was unstoppable.
Well, sadly, everyone stops eventually. He remained positive throughout his illness convinced he would beat it. He never seemed afraid and he took it all in stride without complaint. In the end, his positivity and resilience is what encouraged him to keep fighting, right up until it was time to finally take a quiet exit. He left us just as we knew him to be. Strong and untroubled. Without blame or regret. And filled with the love and devotion of his tireless wife who took care of him for over 51 years, his three grandchildren who puffed up his chest every time they drew shapes on paper, his sons and an extended family of his daughters, their parents and siblings. Plus a half-century-long line of students, whom he taught to draw lines of perspective and scale before they were allowed to draw a tree in a field.