You have spent thirty years trying and failing to put down on paper what your dad means to you, failing in large part because you feared if you made yourself say it then that might somehow mean it was the end of the story.
There are two ironies, here. One is that everyone knows you should never leave important things unsaid. Two is that your dad has not yet bowed out of the story. He has added more chapters than you or he ever dreamed possible. He has lived to see his daughters marry and give him six grandchildren, lived to see most of these descendants grow to adulthood. The impact he has left on everyone around him reminds you of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
Like George Bailey, your dad underestimates his own value. He plays the tough guy and often disguises his pain, while his gallows humor dares Fate to take him from you. He shakes his head in disbelief when each additional birthday rolls around. The rest of you sigh and uncross your fingers.
Thirty years ago, when you were 19, you found him sprawled out in the throes of a heart attack. He was 42 years old. At age 45 he underwent a triple bypass. Other episodes since then have ramped up your anxiety; thankfully, he has managed to overcome each one. Your dad’s guardian angel was modern medicine. His Clarence, so to speak, showed him how much he had left to contribute.
Dad comes across as a stern parent, but his offbeat sense of humor balances the scales. While he demands much of his children, he usually relents once you’ve given your all. When you were little, he taught you chess but never “let” you win. He had you reading flashcards when you were barely two. He never did manage to convince you, however, that calculus would’ve impressed your geometry teacher. As hard as he pushed you, Dad always rushed to soften life’s blows. He found you jobs, gave advice, was the shoulder you cried on when a college professor used your gender against you. On your wedding day your lips mirrored the poem he recited:
Little deeds of kindness,
Little words of love,
Help to make earth happy
Like the heaven above.
It resonated with you like an arrow through time, embodying the myriad occasions he had invited you to listen to classical music or watch him fix a machine or learn the essence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Dad challenged you to counter the heights of your intellect with the simplicity of decent, bare-boned humanity.
He wrestled awhile when your kids came along as to how he should interact with them. Ultimately, he treated them exactly as he had you, with the occasional grandparental indulgence thrown in. They thrived under his mantle, clung to it even. You can’t begin to place a value on the role he played as your family shattered. He stood firm as a weathered rock, giving support when they needed it and correction when steadfastness was not always your strong-suit.
He saved you once, too. He heard the flat notes in your voice across a hundred mile distance and told you quite bluntly that your job as a parent was to put the oxygen mask on yourself first or everyone would perish. So you did, and eventually you climbed free of that crash. Dad waited for you, holding out his hand until you drew close enough to grasp it. Then he hauled you up and booted you off on your next flight, hanging close enough to catch you if things stalled out again, though distant enough to let you deal with most turbulence.
Dad’s chapters in your life story have spanned thirty more years than you ever imagined. You celebrated his seventy-second birthday this week, he with his usual incredulous shrug, you with your usual damp-eyed relief. It hasn’t been the easiest life, but having Dad as your wingman has made it a whole lot more wonderful that it otherwise would’ve been.
There, you’ve said it, but that’s not the end of this story. Another chapter starts . . . now.