This is a piece I did ten years ago about my dad, who passed away on January 3rd. At the time he had just had a scare with a stroke, and I felt compelled to prepare my thoughts against the inevitable day when he would die. While I didn't use this at his service, in part because it was dated (the lad referenced is about to turn 13) I felt compelled to re-post it here (for lack of a more appropriate space). He did, indeed, teach me many, many valuable lessons betwixt then and his death. Including the proper way to die.
But first and foremost, he taught me how to be a dad. This was written for my 38th birthday, and my 48th now looms. The sentiment, however, is as authentic now as it was then.
I was struck recently by how good I’ve got it. I live in the greatest civilization the world has ever known, with all the world’s knowledge available for my study in the time it takes to Google, enjoy a standard of living undreamt of by the vast majority of history’s royalty and superrich, and just a century ago the likelihood that I’d be dead by now would be pretty high. It would make a great story to tell you how hard I struggled against overwhelming odds and untold suffering to achieve my current life, but that would be fictional bullshit. I’ve had it good from the start, and I can directly pinpoint the reasons that are most responsible.
This thought occurred to me the other day as I was passing by the playpen where my youngest son, not yet two, had grown dissatisfied with the entertainment value of Noggin and pleaded with me to pick him up, with his customary cry of “Holdju! Holdju!”, accompanied by raised arms and frantically waving hands. Cute.
Just then a flood of comprehension washed across my soul, and the planets aligned, and I had what some would call a quasi-mystical experience. I’d say it was a flashback, except that I was no where near as pharmaceutically liberal in my youthful experimentation phase as most of my peers. I just remembered being in a similar situation when I was around the boy’s age. And that made me appreciate my father, Irv, who himself just had an ostensibly important transitional birthday, his 60th.
If you don’t know Irv, you are the poorer for it. He, like me, is a father to three children, three boys, no less. He was a “Sedimentation and Erosion Control Technician” (read: “Dirt Inspector”) for Durham County for a decade and a half, and had other, less glamorous jobs before that. On paper, he was completely unexceptional: middle class, two-year degree, wife ‘n’ kids. But read between the lines there and you find out just how subtly exceptional he was.
My Dad is the wisest man I know, bar none. While our opinions on many subjects (politics included) have diverged slightly over the years, he remains the most astute analyst of human social interaction and behavior that I have ever known. The lessons he has passed on to me have gone far beyond the “fatherly wisdom” variety, and delved into deep, rich territory.
Unlike the vast majority of his peers, he did not pursue affluence or wealth. Prosperity, yes. Having just enough was enough. “Friends are more important than money” was one of the many, many maxims he instilled in me, and he proved it, over and over again. Faced with the inevitable choices that a middle-class family has to make about expenditure, he consistently chose the path that led to investments in his family, not in things. Oh, he could have, easily, by making the choice to pursue a soul-killing job in middle-management somewhere. But he didn’t, and I am the richer for it.
He was not the typical Boomer Dad, thank the Goddess. He was an outstanding parent, conducting the brain-busting, wallet-draining task of raising three precocious boys to men without investing a shred of self-important ego into the task. He didn’t cheat on his wife, indulge in cocaine or fundamentalist religion, go through some self-delusional pity-party midlife crisis, or any of the other asinine stunts his generation was prone to. He lived life well, a life to be envied, and he had no regrets about the way he did it. If he had disappointments in his life, I rarely knew about them, and bitterness was not in his nature. When I take a survey of my closest friends, I find myself in the enviable position of having the same set of parents, in the same household, that I started out with – which makes me an aberration. I don’t mind.
Perhaps I suffer as a writer because I didn’t experience the agony of “daddy issues”, testosterone-laden competition between father and son, mutual disappointments, constant arguments, or the idea that he “just didn’t understand” me, but I can live with professional mediocrity if that’s the price of admission to greatness.
Irv always understood me. He never tried to dominate me, or live life vicariously through me or my brothers. He never tried to make me conform to an uncomfortable social stereotype, or worry overmuch what other people thought about me. We were never trans-generationally alienated. From adolescence on he treated me like an intellectual equal, if an undereducated one. He never tried to push me into a career, or really do anything but exploit my natural talents and interests. He ensured I learned the skills I would need in manhood, and did it in a non-coercive way. Seeing how my peers were raised, I know full well how lucky I was in this.
I know he had issues with his own father, and that makes his parenting that much more impressive. Faced with an occasionally belligerent and rigid-minded dad himself, he went out of his way to raise us with a healthy dose of affection and demonstrated love. He did not become his father.
I said Irv was wise. That’s not something you hear often these days, that a man is Wise; Wisdom is a highly undervalued commodity in our world, but Irv, in his wisdom, knew that, and took advantage of it. He taught us to look at a situation fully before acting, not act in haste without sacrificing the spontaneity essential for a well-lived life, and stay informed on everything that could potentially help or harm us. He taught us how to make strangers into friends, and friends into allies. He taught the art of the Hat Trick, solving your or your friends’ problems through networking, craftiness, and initiative. He taught us how to tell when we’re being bullshitted. He taught us drywall and auto repair and how to do little inexpensive romantic things to keep your marriage running. He taught us how to pay attention to those with wisdom (that is, learning from the mistakes of others; everyone can learn from their own mistakes.). He taught us to be our own men.
Irv was, and still is, a Boy Scout leader. Despite the issues that have arisen surrounding that organization, it still has tremendous value as a repository for knowledge and wisdom – merit badges are “survival tickets” and the moral codes taught by the BSA, while often viewed through a very narrow, conservative lens, are nonetheless strong and important values that are rarely taught any where else. In his retirement he and my mom have become Red Cross volunteers and Ruritans, because helping out your neighbors in a crisis and making your community a better place is the right thing to do. He taught us that community service isn’t just something a judge makes you do. He taught us that Enlightened Self Interest often looks like pure altruism, if you don’t look too closely.
Irv is a political animal, astute in recognizing power structures and adept at realizing their strengths and weaknesses. He is a shrewd negotiator, mostly because he doesn’t try to “get the better end of the deal” all the time. He frequently views the Big Picture, trying to put local issues in a greater context and seeing how trends in the greater world will have a local effect. During his tenure at Durham County, he became known as “the man with the hat”, and it was rare we attended any public event without at least a few folks shouting “Irv!” gleefully, then introducing their entire family. Irv once confided that the hats he wore were a sort of reverse camouflage – he could go somewhere without it, and most folks wouldn’t recognize him off-hand. He could disappear just by taking off his hat. Ingenious.
Irv is one of those rare and special Boomers who is not technophobic, which pleases me to no end. He gave me my appetite for high technology and science-fiction (he passed me Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones when I was 8, and it changed my life – not that the book was that special, but it was Real Grown Up Sci-Fi). He has a knack for seeing the social implications of a new piece of technology and projecting into the future what effect it might have. At this late stage he is embarking on a part-time job in computer hardware repair.
Irv knows a bargain when he sees it. While we were not the most affluent of families growing up, we usually lived much higher on the food chain than our family’s income would indicate, largely because my Mom is a demon shopper and my Dad can find hidden resources in the unlikeliest of places. He taught us that a two-year old car is better than a brand new car, and that the best car of all is one you got cheap and you can keep going until the wheels fall off. He isn’t above a good scavenge – he taught me that trash piles are unappreciated resources and that everything has value . . . eventually.
One of the most important lessons he taught me was that sometimes you just have to tip your head back and sing! That doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering – lots of people sing. But in his immediate family such public displays of emotion were heavily discouraged – an unfortunate by-product, along with hard teasing, of our Scottish cultural heritage, I believe. He spent twenty years teaching himself how to play guitar and sing. After twenty years he became a pretty decent guitar player. He never became a good singer. Didn’t improve one iota. Couldn’t carry a tune in a gunny sack. Had little musical talent at all – but that never once stopped him from expressing himself in the media he preferred. He still sings – badly – but he doesn’t play guitar any more.
Which brings me back to the present, and back to my mystical experience, and back to my appreciation of my father in a way I hadn’t fully realized before. A few weeks before my youngest son (“Holdju! Holdju!”) was born, my father suffered his second stroke. The first had been bad enough; it had reduced his range of movement and strength on his right side.
With some physical therapy and determination he had come back to the point where you really had to look to notice any defect. This second stroke, though, struck hard. He is mostly paralyzed on his right side which, among other things, precludes his ever playing guitar again. That’s got to be devastating to a man who had little natural talent to begin with, and whose ability was almost entirely self taught. That was a tumultuous time for us all – my Dad came home from the hospital to live with me and my wife and kids, because they live out in the boonies and I was closer to the hospital, as well as having through no fault of my own a handicapped accessible shower and toilet.
A week later we went back to the hospital for the youngest to be born. He now walks with a cane (“Papa’s Hook”) and a leg brace, and there is just the barest hint of a speech impediment. But he walks, and he talks, and he still sings upon occasion. No, the stroke didn’t make that any better, either. But not much worse.
The reason I bring all of this up is that on my 38th birthday I am realizing that my father’s influence on my life, the lessons he taught me, didn’t stop when I moved out of the house. They continue to this day. The struggle he has faced these last two years have revealed a great deal of his character and his personal vulnerabilities that I was previously unaware of. I’ve seen dark parts of my Dad that I’d rather not have experienced – quite understandable, under the circumstances. He still faces depression on a daily basis, I know. But in facing that struggle, with all of its attendant heartbreaks, disappointments, and profound feelings of loss, my father has taught me lessons as valuable as any imparted in childhood. He has taught me how to face the abyss in your own soul, how to challenge adversity, and how to adapt to changing circumstances.
As he stood in the Ruritan hall at the surprise party my mother had so adeptly arranged (haven’t forgotten about you, Mom, you get your own article), he looked out at the crowd of Boy Scouts and grandchildren and friends, and in that moment he taught me how to age gracefully, love life, and deal with adversity. For a half-paralyzed, retired old man on a fixed income, my Dad remains active: he’s rebuilding a 1960s era John Deer tractor that he dearly loves – one handed. He remains a Red Cross volunteer and Scout leader, as well as an active Ruritan. He has a network of friends and allies that Karl Rove would envy. He has six active grandchildren that he remains very engaged with – he’s the perfect grandfather. For a man with one good leg and a quickly-retrained left hand, he accomplishes a remarkable amount. If that ain’t a lesson, I don’t know what is.
But it all started, if my flashback was accurate, when I was a baby my son’s age or thereabouts, with me looking up to his bearded face (God, when he shaved his beard off once when I was 11 I freaked!) from the daycare center near to Mott Community College where he got his 2 year degree, my arms extended, hands waving, shouting my own version of “Holdju! Holdju!” when he came to get me. And the smile on his face when he reached down and picked me up and played with me in a manner which most manly men would have avoided, clinging instead to their rigid idea of traditional masculinity and the very minor role that babies play in it. I saw that smile reflected back at his 60th birthday party, and now when I look at the long, slow journey of middle age and beyond, with the inevitable conclusion, I know how to handle it. Because Irv taught me. He continues to teach me. And I have many more lessons yet to come.
So I reached over and picked up my last child, hugged him tight, and went all Goofydaddy for a good five minutes when there was probably some important stuff I had to do. Because I learned from Irv that my most important job in the world is making sure that my kids have a happy childhood and that they have a friend, first and foremost, in their father.