Sunday, June 17, 2007

Missing Dad on Father's Day


Today is the first Father's Day without my dad. In his honor, I share a piece I wrote about him that I read at his service.
* * *
My dad loved it when my sisters and I would play on the piano songs from Fiddler on the Roof. He had an affinity for Tevye, the man whose life and character very much paralleled my dad's: a man whose loving daughters stubbornly insisted on forging their own paths; a man married for many years to a smart woman who made the family run and who had a mind of her own; a man who immersed himself in both the life of the mind and the body; a man who enjoyed day-dreams of getting rich; a man who could anger easily and just as easily ask for forgiveness; a man who was centrally involved with both his family and community; a man who loved tradition.

My dad was the forger of many of our family traditions, the creator of a vision of an ideal family headed by an always-engaged father, something he hadn't had. Sometimes he'd say he was learning from scratch how to be a father. That was usually when we were coming together after an argument about something. My dad didn't like to have bad feelings unresolved. Every time after we fought, he'd come into my bedroom to talk or later, when I lived away from home, he'd call me on the phone. Talking was an important part of who my father was. That was the way he connected to people. That is how, in fact, I see my father's spirituality: through his connections to other people.

And there was no topic he wouldn't engage in, no one he wouldn't talk to. On what turned out to be the last day of his life, he chatted up the plumber who'd come to fix the kitchen sink. A few days after my dad died, the oxygen delivery guy came to pick up all the tanks and equipment that had been such a part of keeping my father alive. The delivery guy said he'd always enjoyed coming to the house because he and my dad would talk. My dad often asked him what he was up to on the weekend. Once the delivery guy told my dad he was going gambling at the Indian casino, and my dad pulled five bucks out of his wallet and said, "Play this for me."

Dad liked to talk about current events, about my sisters and my daily activities or the plans for our lives. And he loved to get into heated political discussions. A staunch Democrat, he had strong opinions. He'd often ask me how I was planning to vote on a Proposition. If my choice was different from his, he wanted to make sure I understood why I was wrong! Once when my sister Ann was in elementary school she went with her Campfire Girl group to the state capital and came home, excitedly saying, "Dad, I went to the governor's mansion today and used Ronald Reagan's pen"and he said, drolly expressing that he was unimpressed with Reagan, "So what?!"

He didn't only have opinions about politics; he worked for what he believed would make a difference in the community. He chaired the local Democratic Committee. He also worked with many other organizations, from Friends of the Library to the grand jury, from the American Lung Association to commissions on poverty and economic development. The other day the mail carrier who has been delivering my parents' mail for more than 30 years told me he read my father's obituary, which outlined all the organizations he worked for. The carrier said, "How did he do all that, with his health like it was?" And I pictured him in my mind, throwing his oxygen tank strap over his shoulder, and getting into the car to drive off to a meeting. That's how he did it.

Dad was a doer. He loved his work as a community college educator and administrator, and told me that there was never a day he dreaded going to work. Having to retire early because of his health was hard on him, but perhaps that is part of what fueled his ongoing engagement with his community and family.

He worked hard both in his vocation and at home. I never saw him sleep in. He never spent a day in bed except when forced to in the hospital. Every morning he was up early, mustache waxed, blue eyes sparkling, ready to go. At the house I grew up in, he put miles on the wheelbarrow hauling in wood for the wood-burning stove. He built decks, planted trees, fixed and built all kinds of things. There was nothing that a toothpick, some electrical tape and a little swearing couldn't fix. He often whistled while engaged in these tasks. He had a beautiful whistle; he could whistle any song, even Beethoven's 5th.

He enjoyed listening to classical music. One time I saw him in the living room, conducting to the stereo with an imaginary conductor's baton. He was proud of that stereo he bought in 1973, with the huge speakers; even when he got brand new, more high-tech equipment (which he wasn't completely sure how to use), he didn't want to get rid of those speakers. To this day they are stored in the garage. He even recently tried to pawn them off on me. He liked the idea of things he cared about continuing to be used by others. If he bought a new bathroom scale or telephone or clock, he'd ask us if we wanted the old one. Two weeks before he died he asked my sister if she wanted his Jacuzzi bathtub! A few months back, when he knew he wouldn't be driving much anymore, he gave his Subaru to his grandson Beau. A few years ago, he was glad when my partner and I took home furniture that my parents replaced with something new. We now have in our house the rocking chair and table they bought in 1960, the very table my family sat around for nightly dinners, a tradition he relished and insisted upon.

Dad loved to eat. Even the last day of his life, he struggled to eat dinner, but that night as we watched a movie, he ate a big piece of apple pie ala mode. His favorite foods usually had some tradition associated with them, like the soup his mother used to make, or her pickled pigs' feet, or her homemade pasties or poppy-seed rolls. When my mom baked a whole chicken, she and my dad would split the chicken heart to eat. When we went to San Francisco as a family, he always made it a point to buy a big loaf of sourdough bread and a stick of butter that we'd share on the drive home. We relished it not only because it tasted so good but because that was the only time we were allowed to eat in the car. He loved all the foods associated with the holidays we celebrated. He smeared horseradish on hard-boiled eggs at Easter; he carved the turkey with his electric knife at Christmas.

I remember him teaching me when I was a kid how to eat properly at a restaurant: the smaller fork for the salad, the larger spoon for soup, the thick cloth napkin unfolded and placed on your lap. It makes me wonder who taught him, since he grew up poor. Always money conscious, he insisted on tipping exactly ten percent. He loved a deal, whether it was an all-you-can eat buffet, or the 15% discount he talked a salesperson into. Even the last day of his life when we needed a plumber, he insisted on calling five places for quotes. It was hard for him to write out that check to the plumber in part, I know, because he was the one who liked to fix things but just couldn't anymore.

I never did hear him say that, though. One time I asked him if he ever felt it was unfair that he, a non-smoker, ended up with a progressive lung disease. He said, "These things happen. I'm more likely to say 'why not me?' than 'why me?'

And he didn't make a big pronouncement to people that he had never smoked and therefore wasn't somehow culpable for his failing health. In fact, he'd do the opposite. When he was out and about, carrying his oxygen or later, being pushed in the wheelchair, he'd say to a young man or woman who was leaning up against a building smoking, "Hey, you better quit that or you'll end up like me."

That was my dad. He rarely passed up a didactic opportunity. He was a teacher by vocation and personal persuasion. He was also a counselor, a man with a master's degree in counseling psychology who had learned from the eminent psychologist Carl Rogers. My dad counseled his students and his kids' even when we didn't want to be counseled! He found other ways to incorporate into the family what he'd learned from studying psychology. Sometimes after a family dinner, my dad would have us switch seats so we'd each role-play another member of the family. Whoever was characterizing my dad would put on a big voice and boss everyone around. He'd laugh a loud self-deprecating laugh, and we'd all join in.

My father was a full man: active, curious, loving, engaged to the end. He had a stubborn lust for life. He was a big, big presence and I miss him terribly. But of course he lives on in his children and grandchildren; and in every student he ever taught; and in every person he ever talked to.

He was very much a family man, but as a citizen, he belonged not only to his family but to the public. He belonged to all of us.

Post a Comment