Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Note: I wrote this essay in 1997, before I had kids, before I worked a 12-step recovery program, before some very drastic rearrangements in my views of God and the world. When I went back and re-read this, I was kind of astonished at how much of what I have come to believe and embrace in this area, I had already seen in my father. I'm just that stubborn addict-type who needs to learn everything the hard way. So, at the risk of completely embarrassing my dad, I share this with all of you (Sorry, Dad. And Happy Birthday!)


My father and I have a lot in common. We are both third out of four children. We both have an older brother, then an older sister, and then a younger brother and we have always been closest to our younger brothers in relationship. I look a lot like him, too--same high forehead and German features. As a child, I looked like his head on a tiny body in a pink dress and shiny leather shoes. Only I had more hair.

We both enjoy pondering complex concepts and tend to have a myriad of ideas running through our minds at any given moment. Our thoughts also tend to wander from subject to subject, seemingly without logic. For example, either of us is equally likely to be having a perfectly normal conversation about, say, music, when our companion brings up the song “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. It starts running through our head and soon, we’re reminded of the fact that Tiger Woods won the Master’s Tournament in 1997 and set a new record in the process. While contemplating this impressive feat our minds drift to the comedy golfing movie, Caddy Shack. We supress a chuckle when we remember one character playing the best game of golf he’s ever played in the pouring rain and subsequently getting struck by lightning. The next thing our hapless companion knows we blurt, “Did you know that according to the Farmer’s Almanac there is a man who’s been struck by lightning over sixty times in his life and is still alive?”

I often wonder if my father feels as chagrined as I when suddenly we realize the other person is staring at us as if we’ve grown a second head and wondering if we’ve heard a single word they’ve been saying for the past ten minutes. Of course we have. It’s running around in our brains somewhere. I’m just never sure I can access it at just that moment and I find myself praying fervently my partner won’t play the role of the irked teacher and demand I repeat what he or she has just said.

At an early age, my dad taught me to play chess and he and I both enjoy it a great deal. Truthfully, I don’t like playing with him as much as I like playing with those less skilled than I. But playing chess with my father over the years has taught me to lose with a certain amount of grace. Mind you, the one time I did actually beat him I felt like jumping up and doing an exuberant Russian table-dance right then and there. I did not. And perhaps that speaks well of me, too.

Then again, if there is any hint of restraint in my behavior, you can thank my father. He reminded me constantly in my youth that self-control was something I could certainly use more of. At the time, hearing him tell me that just made me even angrier (which is hard to imagine when I’d just thrown a screaming tantrum, run up the stairs and slammed the door to my room hard enough to have taken off someone’s finger--or head.) But to this day, when I experience those same feelings of intense frustration (the kind where I want to hurl something delicate and fragile into a solid object at several times the speed of sound just to have the satisfaction of hearing it explode into a million shards), I can hear him clearly in his ‘barely-reigned-anger’ voice saying, “You, young lady, need to learn some self control.” And that is enough to make me put down the Faberge’ egg or Ming vase and surrender to the authorities.

But more than simply an effective lecturer, he was always a good role model of understatement and restraint. I remember vividly the day the ceiling under the bathroom caved in onto the living-room floor during the Indianapolis 500. I think I was about 7. He heard the crash, ran to the landing, and halfway down the stairs he stopped and said, very quietly, “Shit.” I was stunned--in all my life I had never heard him say a bad word, and here he had without any anger whatsoever. Then, as soon as he’d ascertained that no one had been hurt, he simply turned around and walked back upstairs to watch the rest of the race.

When the occasional foul language slips into my own sentences (well, perhaps more than occasional, I am afraid) I imagine him getting annoyed with me not because I’ve used an unacceptable four-letter word, but because using such language betrays a lack of intelligent vocabulary. His constant insistence on my finding more creative ways to express myself has clearly been a roundabout influence on my writing, if not my day-to-day discourse. And his lifelong example of uncompromising honesty has led me to selflessly truthful acts great and small, from never fudging on my taxes to telling the cable company that my new apartment was getting free cable.

There are a great many other things I have been given by my father: my out-in-left-field sense of humor and the inexplicable enjoyment I get out of a deliciously bad pun, my love of good literature and reading in general, my belief in justice and the moral necessity of doing the right thing, rooted in the knowledge that we are all God’s children, regardless of origin, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, and that, as I am clearly not God, I have no right to judge.

But most of all and best of all, my dad has always given me his unconditional love and support. I was never told what I could or could not do with my life. I was never told I could not attend the college of my choice or pursue the studies that intrigued me or marry the man of my dreams, all of which I have done. He has never mentioned the fact that I spent 15 months and twelve thousand (student loan) dollars to get a teaching license that I am not using. When I call home in tears, he is sympathetic; when I call home in triumph, he rejoices; when I don’t call home, he thinks about me--but he doesn’t complain.

As a result of his unconditional love and the freedom he gave me, I have grown into an independent, loving person. And I have for him deep and immeasurable love and respect that goes beyond familial obligation or perfunctory parent-child friendships. Mind you, in spite of the glowing words on this page, I am smart enough to know that no one is perfect. Lord knows I certainly am not. Humans are by nature flawed, regardless of upbringing. But perfection is not my goal. I am something which, to me, is far better than perfect: I am happy. And in large part, I can thank my dad and the gifts he has always given me.


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