Today is Father’s Day. It also happens to be the day my father was born, on the stroke of midnight, in 1918. This allowed him a certain leeway in celebrating his birthday. This is a flexibility I find useful, since I am officially scheduled to post on the 18th, but must actually publish it on the 17th at 7 p.m.
On either date, I feel compelled to write about Daddy, skirting the suggested topic for this cycle (that unpublished book in my drawer) to dwell on the guy whose advice (“Why don’t you try writing a novel?”) gave birth to my writer self and whose love for my mother is both the stuff of fairy tales and true romance.
They were married on June 26th, 1943.
It was wartime, which is why my mother's suit is navy and Dad's wearing khaki instead of something finer.
Dad was 25; my mom was 21.
This year, for her 90th birthday, my mom didn't want a party, at least not for herself. Instead she asked that we all convene two weeks early, and celebrate the life of my father, who'd died one year earlier.
Instead of concentrating on the glory days, I talked of his final year, for that was when I think the true mettle of this decorated fighter pilot and much-loved professor showed itself. It was also, and not coincidentally, when I saw how deeply my father loved my mother. For an accomplished athlete who was still body-surfing at 90, accepting the sudden limitations of his physical strength must have been so difficult. Yet accept it he did, with grace and humor. I believe he pressed himself to live well past his expiration date, not simply because he wanted my mom to be okay, but because he couldn't bear to leave her.
There is one moment in particular that keeps coming back to me. At the end, he needed help walking. I was accompanying him to the bathroom, a task that I’m sure neither of us could have conceived would ever be necessary just a few months earlier. To ease the awkwardness of the moment, or perhaps to acknowledge it, I quoted Tennessee Williams. “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.” I then recounted some of my most humiliating moments during the aftermath of radiation. We were laughing at the sheer indignity of the human intestinal tract when my mom came in to the bathroom and crouched down to pick up some dirty laundry.
Dad’s attention seemed to fade and I thought perhaps he was feeling faint. He appeared to list towards the ground, and I reached out to steady him. Suddenly I saw what he was doing. His gaze was lazered on my mother. His hand was extended towards hers, offering her help standing up. Even in his weakest moments, he was still centered on making sure she was alright. It might be the most romantic thing I’ve ever witnessed.
What I loved about my father was not only his ability to be gallant in the midst of appalling experiences, but his will to see the best in those he loved. He ignored the crap and praised the one part of us that was trying to be something just a little bit better. Our aspirations mattered to him, as did our love for our spouses and children and friends, all of whom he and mom inquired about whenever we talked. They were such a beautiful match. We were so lucky, not simply to have them as parents, but to hope that in our most difficult times, we might aim towards the valiance and sheer power of will to believe that love conquers all.
It does, it will. You can take that to the bank. I even think it’s the one thing you can take with you. In fact, it could just be the transporting vehicle that will help each of us cross to safety. If so, I'm betting that superb pilot we all knew and loved might just have a hand stretched out our way.