Today my father would have turned 75. Twenty-seven years ago my family and friends buried him in Hickory Hill park on what would have been his 48th birthday. His untimely death left a void both in our family and my life as I was starting college, but also in his field where he had done prominent research as a glaucoma specialist and surgeon.
There have been many “what-if” moments in my life, where I wondered how my dad would have felt if he were still a living part of my life. My biggest accomplishment that I would have liked to share with him would be my son, not only his birth but also each milestone in his life.
There have been other moments, like in concert, where I almost feel my dad’s hand on my shoulder. My dad was a good amateur pianist, lover of chamber music and record collector. He came to almost all my cello lessons, accompanied all my recitals and solo opportunities and would invite me to play chamber music with his colleagues who came over for dinner.
In spite of his busy schedule at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as a teaching professor, researcher and surgeon, we would always have family breakfasts and dinners at a time when most families were eating on the run, using microwaves to reheat food, and almost never sitting down together. Dad would often pull out his Yamaha classical guitar after dinner and get us all singing folk songs like “Michael Finnegan” or “Puff the Magic Dragon.” As we got older this sometimes embarrassed us, but I was always amazed by how my friends enjoyed singing along with us.
He took time to read the entire Hobbit/Lord of the Ring Series to us at bedtime (he even photocopied the maps so we could all follow), and also read “The Secret Garden” and “The Prince and the Pauper” to me alone. I cherished those moments and also when he invented stories about a little rabbit named Peter.
As I think back on what dad did for fun, I realize he instilled in me a love for the woods, gardening and nature in general. He was an avid bird-watcher and would point out different birds as we hiked through Hickory Hill Park or Mac Bride Campus. I would fall asleep to dad playing piano, or his Glenn Gould Bach recordings.
Dad also pushed us to be our best. Sometimes this was a hard standard to meet, and I dreaded when he would pull out flashcards after dinner and drill our multiplication, division or spelling. He had only the highest visions for me, and told me that I couldn’t just go to a music conservatory, but had to look at colleges with double-degree programs or very good academic departments. I ended up at Oberlin, my first choice. I’m sure he was crushed that I completely spaced off my Harvard interview, but he wasn’t too hard on me about it.
My love of biking also comes from dad; he would suggest we all hop on our bikes after dinner and ride to Baskin-Robbins for dessert, and I can still remember him running alongside me down Ferson Avenue as I teetered and tottered learning to ride a two-wheeler, eventually spilling onto someone’s lawn.
When he was middle-aged, he took up running and mom eventually joined him. This was around when junior high gym class had made me hate running (just the smell of a school locker room still brings back dread), so I never dreamed of joining him. Now I would love to just run alongside him and share the peaceful quiet you can with a parent, knowing that you are doing something that is going to feel good later and help you age less.
I also remember when he bought his first Speedo and we teased him mercilessly up at the Lake. It was the first time I was kind of conscious of what my dad was wearing, maybe because it wasn’t much! He would challenge us to swim across the Lake. I think only my brothers met the challenge, but I think I rode in the rowboat with dad who made sure to follow them as they met his bet.
Perhaps the knowledge that I’m getting closer to the age dad was when he died two days after my 18th birthday has motivated me to want to fight getting old by exercising. Or maybe it’s that frankly too many close friends and relatives have fought too much cancer this past year.
I tried to create a day today with my son where we would share things his Grandpa Charles would love. We were partially successful: I did get him out of bed to do my run-walk with me, but he grumbled the whole way (12 year olds can’t wrap their brains around exercise before breakfast, and Paul is part-Hobbit and wants 3 breakfasts to boot). We went to church and Paul sang out of the side of his mouth just the way my dad used to. We bought the world’s largest mum plant at Costco, placed it on dad’s grave and took a beautiful walk in nature. Although I already read the Lord of the Rings to Paul when he was in first grade, we’ll start it again tonight.
And somewhere up there, his Grandpa Charles is wearing a bow tie and bursting with pride, because he knows that we are trying to enjoy every day, love each other and enjoy being together. Corny, but true, and I’m tearing up as I write this. My dad may not be present physically, but I know he is with me, in me, in Paul and helping me move forward.