I’m speaking a week from today, 5-7 minutes of an entertaining story about someone else’s experience. This is running just a touch long (and I have to figure out if I’m going to sing the segment of the Dan Fogelberg song [at 7 a.m., through my speaking nerves, a capella. Piece of cake. I only forget how to breathe when I sing solos in public.] or try to play it, but if I play it, it eats about 30 seconds of my speaking time, so I think I’m going to try to sing it and speed it up.) I welcome your thoughts. It’s a first draft, and though I’m painfully close to it, I’ll try to hear constructive criticism.
“The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band…”
Like me, my dad was the youngest in his family. He had an older brother and sister. They grew up in Brooklyn, New York, during and after World War II. My dad was content to let my mom do most of the talking, most of the time— he wasn’t naturally quiet or shy, but he adored her and she’s funny and smart, so a lot of the stories I have about his life came from her.
For example, after his First Communion, his parents took him out for seafood. They were big seafood lovers, my grandparents. He was six or seven, and was a little befuddled when the waiter set a fingerbowl and a wedge of lemon in front of him. But he was always up for anything, so after considering it for a second, he squeezed the lemon into the fingerbowl, added some sugar, and drank it. Some people talk about making lemonade when life hands you lemons, but my father lived it!
He wasn’t a natural success at everything he tried. He loved being athletic, but developed a condition that damaged the cartilage in his knees early on, and that limited the sports he could play. So he became a champion swimmer. He wanted to be an altar boy, growing up, but that was in the day when the Catholic Mass was entirely in Latin. He studied until he knew the Mass backward and forward in Latin, but when he got up to do it, he was so nervous it made him sick to his stomach. He never did get to be an altar boy, but he trained my brothers, who did it, and then me, and I did it for nine years, until I graduated high school. He was great at making the best of a bad situation.
I loved the stories of pranks he and his friends would play. There was a guy in their neighborhood who gave them a hard time when they were playing stickball, so one day, they took his car up the service elevator and balanced it, half on, and half off the roof. He always stayed this side of a delinquent, and that sparkle was always in his eye.
He was also one of the hardest workers you’d ever meet. He got his first job at age 10, and worked like crazy his entire life. He was deeply committed to doing a good job, and he was great in a diversity of roles. He sold uniforms, managed grocery stores and officers/noncommissioned officers clubs, taught, handled readiness (which is troop deployment) and mortuary affairs over 26 years in the Air Force and a dozen more in civil service. You hear mortuary affairs and think “that sounds pretty depressing,” but it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen— my father knew how to be there for families who had lost a loved one, how to support them in the worst moments of their lives, and to make those moments just a little easier to navigate.
He was handy— if it was daylight and he was home from work, he might be working on a car or building or fixing something. When he would visit me as an adult, he’d never sit down and let me wait on him— he was always up fixing broken this or improving that.
But my father was definitely not all work and no play. He loved to dance— he and my mom met at 15, married at 20, and they danced together almost to the end. He was so easy and free on the dance floor— when they danced, the floor would clear and people would stand back to admire them. He loved to play football with my brothers, and would ride rollercoasters and ski with me from morning until night. He played golf with his friends, and was a wicked card player, effortlessly counting cards and assessing strategy in games.
Because he worked so hard and let my mom do so much of the talking, he wasn’t always easy to get to know. Frankly, I didn’t know where I stood with him, in my later teen years, until I went away to college. He provided for me, sure, but he was just responsible that way. I never knew how he felt until the day, at college, when I opened my mailbox to see a tiny, yellow-orange envelope. Mom wrote often, but this was addressed to me in my dad’s scrawl. On Get Along Gang stationery I’d gotten duplicates of when I was nine, he’d write to me about life. I got a handful of those letters over the years, but they meant the world to me. I had never known him to write to anyone but Mom. That he wrote to me, knowing that she was keeping me posted, told me what I needed to know.
I began an all-out covert offensive, to get to know him in his own words. He was unfailingly chivalrous, so I’d announce casually that I was going out to walk for exercise after dark. He would never let me walk alone, even in our suburban neighborhood, so he’d join me and I’d angle to make him talk. I bought a cedar chest and declared an intention to refinish it. It was a gorgeous chest and I had no idea what I was doing, so we worked on it together, and I’d make him tell me about life through his eyes, as we worked.
We lost him to ALS in early 2004, and I miss him like crazy, obviously. But his song is most certainly in my soul.