Sunday, July 27, 2008

Constructive Thoughts: Dad

I've had a difficult weekend.

I learned my father has cancer.

He has been fighting benign bladder tumors for several years, but they've not been serious.

Now he has cancer. Prostate cancer.

They're not going to operate, because the physicians figure it would only buy fifteen years, and my father is old enough that they don't expect he has fifteen years anyway.

That's a nice bedside manner, eh?

It has not metastasized, so that's a bit of good news.

As good as it can be, I suppose. Needless to say, it's been tough to concentrate on anything else this weekend. Watching him hold my six-month-old in his arms just minutes after reassuring me of his mortality was nearly more than I could take. The question popped into my mind: would she ever know him, remember him?

I don't know how even to begin putting into words my memories of the stories of and experiences with my father.

Some of my fondest memories of Dad center around the little black-and-white television that stood in Mother and Dad's bedroom for so long, perched precariously upon the little, rickety television stand. The tear-streaked, red, laughing face that always appeared following Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal's race through the streets of San Francisco. Michael Douglas and bulbous-nosed Karl Malden racing through the Streets of San Francisco. There was F.B.I. and Hawaii Five-O. And of course, M*A*S*H*. Nothing (other than What's Up Doc?) would make Dad roar with laughter like Hawkeye's antics or Frank Burns' buffoonery. I didn't always understand the joke, or what was going on in the show, but just to see that twinkle in Dad's eyes was something special.

Dad would get that same twinkle in his eye when he had the opportunity to tease. He loved to tell stories in front of my grandmother about her and my grandfather. I'll never forget how he would tease my siblings' dates and spouses. It was never mean or hurtful; he always knew how far to go and how to do it with love. Dad could also take it well as he could dish it out.

There were the years and years of University of Utah football--Dad's alma mater--that just seemed to end in misery, with Dad frustrated, yelling, and pounding his open hand on the bedspread, and the inevitable gloating telephone call from his brother after every BYU win.(Aside: Of course, now when I do the same thing watching the Utes or the Utah Jazz, it has somehow become "just a game" and I'm told to settle down and just enjoy.) Dad eventually got his fair share of gloating telephone calls in . . . but Dad's brother wasn't nearly as good a sport about getting the calls as he was about making them! Then there were the late nights at the local college watching basketball, while eating smuggled-in popcorn and sodas out of Mother's big white purse--that Dad inevitably ended up carrying into the building.

Dad would also be the one to carry the purse into movies--it was a giant purse, usually filled with home-popped popcorn in supermarket produce sacks and illicit canned sodas. The movies? They were movies such as the interminable Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, and King David experiences. Dad was always trying to broaden my horizons like that--we never seemed to go to the good "fun" movies that I wanted to see, or do the "fun" things that I wanted to do. Instead, it was hours and hours of boredom while we went around on odd jobs while he was unemployed. I can still remember the heat and the boredom--I was never allowed to take a book or any toys, except for a large, plastic, yellow model of a Honda Civic. There were also the (seeming) hours of travel to visit family, or to after-hours business meetings. Traveling to and from anywhere seemed like forever when reading in the car was forbidden.

But Dad made up for those times by introducing me to the dean of science fiction, Robert Heinlein, and to Martin Caidin, and to David Morrell--authors whose names my classmates seldom, if ever, recognized. It was Dad to whom I could turn to discuss books, although it will forever baffle me how his taste in books could be so broad, from Burroughs to Heinlein, from Clancy to L'Amour, but he could never stomach for a moment anything fantasy-related. "Why should I read about something that never happened and never could happen?" he would ask me. "It's just fantasy." The argument would frustrate me and I would simply let it die. Someday I hope to find a fantasy novel that he will read and enjoy . . . Someday.

Dad was forever trying to bring my head out of the clouds. Somehow, it was always he who would assist me with my math homework. He would get so livid at my inability to retain the quadratic formula or simple mathematic definitions, while being able to recite trivia ad nauseam. Sometimes I wonder whether, subconsciously, I did it on purpose, just to harass him. Years later, when I first read David Copperfield, I felt that I could relate in some small way to the terror and anguish young David felt when reciting his lessons (or attempting to) to his step-father. While Dad was never that harsh or brutal, the circumstances were similar--I could never keep the figures in my mind, but would soon find myself thinking about the crack in the wall, or the book I was reading, or anything but my homework. Dad would just get more and more upset. He would pound the table and drill me until I cried, but somehow the numbers would slip away; the more he pounded, the faster the numbers would fly. Inevitably, there would come a point where the futility was apparent and one (or both) of us would flee the table to find sanctuary elsewhere.

I know Dad tried so hard because he loved me. I can see that now; with the benefit of time and the aid of fatherhood, I can see many things more clearly, and I'm grateful for the patience that he showed in trying to teach me. I am grateful for the love he showed in trying to teach me, and for the quiet pride--and the sometimes not-so-quiet pride--he would show at my accomplishments: the first time I ever directed the music in Priesthood Meeting; the first time I ever water-skied; the first time I trailered the boat by myself; the first time I ever backed the trailer down the ramp, or parked the van and trailer; high school, college, and law school graduations; the look--and tears--in his eyes as I boarded the plane for my mission.

However, the feelings of pride are not one-sided. Dad likely does not know the pride I have for him, and the esteem in which I hold him. For example: the years as a Gospel Doctrine teacher, the dedication, knowledge, and spirit he could bring to bear on a given Sunday; the feeling of seeing him lead the congregation in song for many years; the dedication to the service, and the endurance that the many hours of long flights and lonely vigils that flying involved; the firm, quiet testimony he would sometimes stand and bear; hearing my voice blend with his on Sunday, singing hymns; the strength and knowledge in his hands as he would perform some simple chore or repair; and the love with which he has always looked at Mother.

As time goes by, I regret more and more the years I have wasted when I could have been learning from Dad. All those years, complaining about yard work, or helping Dad with the car, plumbing, or other odd jobs; I could have learned so much. Instead, I did as little work as possible--always excusing it with schoolwork, or reading, or any available excuse. When I did help, it was grudgingly, never thinking for a moment that any of what I was being asked to do, or what I could have done, would ever benefit me in my life in any way. Putting it in print even now embarrasses me beyond belief. I remember Dad spending his time to come to summer camp with the Scout troop one year. I am mortified now to think of how embarrassed I was to have my Dad there, lecturing to my buddies and taking them to task. Or at family reunions when I was too concerned about my own activities and pleasure to listen to and learn from Dad the stories of my heritage. Or the plethora of times I was too annoyed to listen to the lectures and the lessons he was trying to teach me.

I see now that I spent too long blinded by my youth to recognize the storehouse of knowledge that is Dad. If I was ever to tell him that I consider him such, he would pass it off as vain praise, but to me it is a statement of truth. Dad worked so hard with me as a Scout to learn knot-tying; to this day, I have to struggle to remember a simple square knot--anything more complex is beyond my abilities. He struggled to get me to achieve my Citizenship merit badges; how much that knowledge could have helped me in school classes if I had bothered to learn it! (Aside: "Learn it" rather than "know it long enough to pass off the merit badge.") There is so much I could have learned from him as a child that would have enriched my life and helped me to grow. Instead, I was too "busy" and just didn't care--there would always be another time, after all. In retrospect, I wonder just how much my inattention and my uncaring attitude hurt Dad. I know that it did, and hope that I can make up for that injury someday, somehow.

As I look back, I am amazed at how Dad's work troubles never seemed to impact the family, at least not that I ever saw. He was able to separate his professional and family lives, and not let the stress of daily life interfere with his time with his wife and children. He was always able to provide a wonderful Christmas or birthday for us, and he always had a little something--usually a Matchbox car (in the old cardboard box) and a packet of airline peanuts--tucked away in his suitcase every time he came home from a trip. Those little gifts always made me feel so special, showing me that he had he had thought about me and missed me while he was away.

More recently, it has been a joy to grow closer to Dad as an adult friend. The rapport I feel and the snippets of telephone conversations we have back and forth while watching Everybody Loves Raymond or a particularly gritty NBA game ("Where was the foul?!") are priceless and important to me. So is being able to discuss the gospel with one another and to be taught by his example, or having someone there to whom I can turn for advice. Most importantly, as one who was not able to fully experience the joys of vital and vigorous grandparents, it is touching beyond words to see the expressions of love and the level of devotion that Dad shows my children. In some ways, I am able to imagine what it would have been like for me to have the opportunity to truly know my grandparents, and can vicariously enjoy the thrills, joys, and love that my children feel for their grandfather.

I can only hope that, one day, I can be as good a grandfather as he has been to the Horde. I only hope that I can be as good a father-in-law to my children's future spouses as he has been to his. I can only hope that I can be as good a father to my children as he has been to his.

I'm going to jealously guard every moment I have with him. Hoard every snippet of family lore I can gather. Glean every bit of life-knowledge from him that I can. Ask for his advice while I can get it.

Make him proud of me.

And love him while I can.

I love you, Dad.

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