Today, on February 3rd, my dad is 91 in earth years. Happy birthday, dad! As I reflect back now, seven months removed from his last day with me, I’m aware that he was still teaching me right up to the very end. Here are a few things he taught me during his 89th and 90th year of life.
Embrace your identity. Dad virtually never left the house without his Korean War veteran’s cap. Covered with small medallions, the hat was a symbol of a part of his identity that he both despised and took pride in. He never tired of some young man or woman opening the door for him, looking him in the eye and saying “Thank you for your service.”
Learn your limits by trying. Dad could do many things with both his hands and his brain. Unconsciously I learned to rewire light fixtures, change a car’s flat tire or oil filter, even how to weld and solder. During the last year of his life dad was unwisely wrestling with a leaking toilet to replace its seal. He failed ultimately at it, but needed to learn his limits by trying even if he had to admit he’d lost the fight.
Keep making new friends. Sometimes I’d hear him say, “I really do like people.” He would mutter it as if it were a vulnerable admission inconsistent with his curmudgeonly nature. Dad was a relational being. He loved to “chew the fat.” When he went into rehab it wasn’t long until he made two new friends who would wheel their wheelchairs in a three-sided arc to tell tales and lies.
Stay interested in the world. Dad was forced as a designer to move from pencil and paper into the digital age at the end of his career. He was always proud that he had learned how to use the hardware and software of this next generation of sign design. He channeled that same persistence and curiosity into the world of his personal computer. Most mornings at 4 am he was perusing the L.A. Times or Washington Post in his bathrobe behind a glowing monitor.
Be extravagant in your generosity. This lesson surprised me a bit. Not an inherently generous person, dad believed people needed to take care of themselves as much as possible. He was proud of how his frugality had provided a comfortable lifestyle for him and my mom during these latter years. He never sprinkled gifts or money like fairy dust, but when he learned of his great-granddaughter’s diagnosis with leukemia, it wrecked him. And because of the extravagant crisis in her life he rose to the occasion and assisted financially above and beyond what I had seen from him before.
Express appreciation even when doing poorly. I’ve had my own experiences in hospitals and doctor’s chairs when I’m undone, vulnerable and in need. It has always moved me to tears to be cared for, gently touched and seen by anonymous caretakers. Dad seemed to always remember each aide's name and thank them for each kind deed, however mundane.
Don’t lose your sense of humor. Dad was always a jokester. Sometimes even overdoing it a bit. He majored in sarcastic humor, as well as what he called “gallows humor” (a kind of humor that makes light of something painful or taboo). Whether or not his humor was well placed or not, dad leaned to keep afloat and enjoy the engagement with his well worn wit.
See, but don’t coddle, fellow sufferers. Dad was not a coddler. A softy at heart, but not one to over-care. One of my vivid memories of dad during his last months was coming out of rehab, him in his walker shuffling through the lobby. Ahead of us was a man who was pitifully disfigured and moving his walker with great difficulty. Most people walking or waiting in the atrium averted their eyes as they caught a glimpse of his struggle. Out of the corner of my eye I see my dad moving away from me and toward the man. As he reaches him he blocks the man’s walker with his own, looks him in the eye and says, “Wanna race?” I was possibly never more proud of my dad than at that moment. Humanizing one whom others had made invisible, dad awoke a boy-like dare to snap them both out of the tragedy of their body’s disintegration.
I realize that most who read this never met my dad. But I'd like to think he's still teaching you, just like he keeps teaching me.