My dad’s passing in December was both shocking and not. He had Parkinson’s disease for almost 30 years. Such a disease keeps mortality ever present in your mind, and his life had been increasingly difficult in recent years, but the end seemed to come like an afternoon thunderstorm during the Florida summer. Somewhat expected, but still completely jarring.
His passing left the earth beneath me unsteady. I often feel like I’m walking on the rocks beside a stream. Usually the walk is routine if I tread carefully, but it’s impossible to anticipate when a step might shake a rock loose and leave me scrambling to keep my balance.
Despite the hole his passing has left, I am grateful for all the time we had together, and I’ve taken some time over the last month to consider the lessons my dad taught me through his actions.
My dad was a highly accomplished scientist. He worked for the NASA Life Sciences program in a leadership role for several decades. He loved his work and the people he worked with. Seeing how important his work was to him taught me that it is important to find something in this life that brings you joy. It doesn’t have to be work, but it is nice if your job is more to you than just a paycheck.
He loved his family and was always present and supportive. He was so proud of all of us and would never forego an opportunity to discuss his children and grandchildren’s latest accomplishments, both real and sometimes
slightly greatly exaggerated, with anyone who would listen. His family role was different than mine. He was primarily a breadwinner while I am primarily a caregiver, but he never voiced any qualms with my status as a stay-at-home parent. His example taught me the importance of fulfilling your role and always being proud of your children, whatever path they chose in life.
Remembering Dad, the sports fan
He loved sports, Wake Forest University sports in particular, and was a devoted fan all his life. Some of my greatest memories of him involve attending Wake Forest games. One that stands out is the ACC Championship Football Game that Wake Forest won 9-6 over Georgia Tech in 2006 on a very wet day in Jacksonville. It was a great payoff for my dad after a lifetime of fandom to finally see his beloved, but often over-matched, Demon Deacons prevail on a big stage. Sports may seem trivial, but my dad taught me a love of sports and the value of loyalty.
When I was around 10 years old, my dad, my brother, and I drove from Florida to Atlanta to watch Wake Forest play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. We watched them win their opening round game and then drove back late at night. In classic dad fashion, we stopped off at a very affordable, but rather sketchy Passport Inn alongside the highway in central Georgia. I remember it being a place you were well advised to refrain from touching much of anything like the carpet or bed sheets. Life lesson? I’m not sure. Frugality is a virtue, I guess? I probably didn’t learn this lesson too well. To this day, I prefer hotel rooms where you can touch things.
I lived with my parents for longer than many people do, so my relationship with them grew and evolved over the years. I remember the months my dad and I lived together alone while my mom was in New York receiving medical treatments. He drove with me to a rather sketchy home to pick up my new chihuahua puppy that I had found in a newspaper classified ad. It was basically the Passport Inn of puppy trafficking homes. And while my dad wasn’t a huge dog fan, I’m sure he understood I needed something in that challenging time of young adulthood complicated by parental illness. Even if emotional openness wasn’t our thing, I will always be grateful for my dad’s support and I hope to be a reliable and understanding presence for my children.
What will my kids memories of Dad be?
I remember staying with my mom and dad in Winston-Salem when they both were fighting cancer and driving them to the hospital several mornings per week for my dad’s radiation therapy. I listened to Green Day CDs over and over again during those drives. I’m sure he didn’t completely understand the music selection as he sat beside me in the passenger seat, but he never complained. My dad taught me the value of not speaking just for the sake of speaking. Sometimes silent understanding is what people need most.
I wish my children were older so they could remember more about their grandfather, but I am hopeful some of his lessons reached them as well. I hope they will remember his kindness, his love, and his leading them in drumming their hands on the table at dinner time. I hope they will remember the things they did together like raking leaves, sweeping the driveway, untangling Christmas lights, and using his walker as a roller coaster. I hope they will remember how they helped my mom keep up with their Granddad’s pill schedule and how they brought him his iced tea.
My father was still teaching lessons late in his life. This time, to his young grandchildren. They learned the importance of caring for people in need and they learned that no one can make it in this life alone. We all need help.
My children are still very young, and they might not remember Dad much, but I definitely will. I’ll remember the life lessons and I’ll remember the memorable moments. I’m holding onto these memories a little extra tight. Right now, and for years to come.