How do we account for our vanities? We all have them, be they about our appearance, possessions, or talents. Most are ordinary. But as I reflect on my father’s life, I continue to come back to his particular vanity, which was, like him, singular. His vanity was his modesty. I realize that this is akin to speaking of his proud humility, but this is the only way I can express it. How else can we account for a man who would openly declare that he was the “best number two man at HUD”?
As my brothers and sister and I prepared for today, we were asked if Dad had a favorite line of scripture. None of us could think of one. He loved scripture as a whole. He read it, savored it, drew strength from it. He loved to teach it. I remember my mother telling me a story of two Mormons who stopped by to witness to Dad, and he welcomed them, eager to talk scripture. More than an hour later, they escaped. I don’t know if their faith remained intact.
But that aside, none of us can remember one line in particular. But in my reflections, I came upon a line that I think best sums him up: Micah 6.8 “…do justice, love righteousness, and walk humbly with your Lord.” Dad was a man who found joy in being of service, be it to his boss, to his community, or to his wife.
He was never one to put himself forward. For him, the important thing was being of service, not getting credit. At the soup kitchen, he was the guy in the back, doing the dishes. At men’s breakfast, he was the one making the eggs. At Sunday dinners, he could be found at the grill, making his signature barbecued turkey, away from the hubbub. Even when we asked him what he wanted for Christmas, his answer was invariably “I don’t know,” thus infuriating his children. But he honestly hadn’t thought about it.
As I grew up, he would tell me stories of his service in WWII. I heard how he learned to drink coffee after his LST was swamped off the coast of California in the winter, and how he saved his company by getting lost. No stories of martial valor, glory in battle, medals won, with the exception of his Purple Heart. I was convinced that WWII was the most boring war ever. But one day, when we were moving him into his apartment, I was leafing through a battle history of his division, the 86 Blackhawks. There was an account of the crossing of the Danube, made under mortar and machine gun fire. The lead element was the 342nd Infantry Regiment, Company K. My Dad’s unit. I asked him about this, and his response was “We lost our lieutenant that day.” No word of heroics, no glory, only the remembrance of a fallen leader, a man he deeply respected. Again, his thoughts turned from himself to another.
He brought this sense of putting others first to his marriage. One of the secrets of a happy marriage that he passed on to me was “When you’re wrong admit it, and when you’re right, shut up,” which he held to, for the most part. Many times he would tell the story of the day he went to a Red Sox game with a friend, getting up early, berating Mom for not making breakfast, storming out to the game. During the game the announcer said that the Red Sox would like to wish a Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers in the stands. Dad said that he felt about 3 inches tall. But he did stay until the end of the game. He didn’t remember who won, but he never forgot another Mother’s Day.
This is not to say that he didn’t have his moments, especially if you tried to change his plans. There were many times when all of us, Mom especially, would get what my sister, Marty, has come to call the “scrunch face”. I once asked Mom if she ever thought of divorce. Divorce, never, she said. Murder, often. Their marriage lasted 51 years.
In the past few days when we were with Dad, we assured him that we would be okay, that he had taught us well. And he has. Now, when my children ask “What do you want for Christmas?” I can only answer, “I don’t know.”
It is a great testament to my father’s modesty that it is only now that we, his children, become fully aware of the impact that he has had. He would probably be embarrassed, and he would head for the kitchen, looking for some dishes to do.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Monday, November 08, 2010
I haven’t written here in a long time. Writers are the people who write all the time because they must. I am not a writer. I am a teacher, I am a father, I am a husband, and I am notoriously short on time. I’m driven to write again.
My father is dying. About three weeks ago he had an “episode”, her suffered a pulmonary arrest, and for some reason he checked the “heroic measures” box on the form (big hint, don’t let the guy with macular degeneration to fill out the forms alone), and so he was taken to the hospital, where my sister learned that he was heading into renal failure, and was suffering fluid build-up on his lungs and around his heart.
Sometime this morning, he suffered another “episode”, and the suspicion is that had a stroke, or a number of mini-strokes. By this evening he was unable to speak clearly, and he wasn’t swallowing water.
It is a matter of time.
What do you write at a point like this? I have been thinking about my Dad for the past few weeks, trying to write a mental eulogy for him, which I most likely will never give, but I get lost. How to sum up a life in a few sentences?
My father looms, as I suspect most fathers do, as a grand figure in my life, and as I grow older, he becomes more of an ideal that I aim for, and usually fall far short of. My oldest brother, in an undisputable moment of practicality will probably point out that I am idealizing someone who was not perfect, and I know that he is right. But still, he is my father. Even in the past year or so, as my father gradually lost his voice and his sight, he has still remained a steadying presence. Now that presence is fading away, and with it my confidence.
My father is dying, and I am struggling to be that son he deserved to have.