Listening to Our Fathers

What lessons do we learn from our fathers? What do we carry with us that they shared? Are they the things that they really wanted us to learn?

I can remember when Colleen, one of our daughters, was in a very long line at the supermarket that had come to a grinding halt. Nobody was moving and she was thirsty so Colleen unscrewed the cap on a bottle of Yoo-Hoo (the chocolate drink) and started sipping from it. By the time she reached the cashier, the bottle was empty. When her mother saw this she said, “Where did you learn that?” Colleen just smiled and said, “From Dad. He does it all the time. Then as he pays for it, and teases the cashier that the bottle seems to have a leak in it.” My wife Donna just shook her head, and smiled.

Well, that’s not exactly the kind of thing I wanted to pass on to my children, but the truth is we don’t know what our children will learn from us. We pass things on even when we don’t mean to.

When I got the call from my mom saying that the hospice nurse told her that my father only had a few days left, I got on the next plane. But that night when I saw him it seemed like the nurse was being optimistic. His heavy breathing seemed to stop, then he moaned, deeply, starting to let go of his tight grip on life.

For the previous several months when we would talk on the phone, he asked me to tell him about the people I was interviewing for the book “Succeed On Your Own Terms.” He liked to hear about the actor Ben Vereen; Jeffrey Lurie the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles; Congressman John Lewis, the legendary civil rights advocate; Roger Staubach, who led the Dallas Cowboys to two super bowl victories, and dozens of other accomplished, intriguing, self-aware people who I had the good fortune to meet. We both knew he wasn’t going to be around to see the book published, but he kept telling me how interesting all the people were and how proud he was that I was writing this book.

One time he even told me about a dream he had where he helped me design the cover. But there I was in my parent’s living room looking at him, frail, aching and balancing on that thin line between life and death. And I didn’t know what to do or say. Even if he could hear me, I wasn’t sure if I could come up with just the right thing to say.

A few hours later after my mom and I pushed some food around on our plates and talked as much as we could about how he was doing, I said I needed to go for a walk. As I paced through my parent’s neighborhood, I called home on my cell phone and told my wife Donna and our daughter Tara, who is a registered nurse, that I wasn’t sure my dad was going to make it through the night. Tara said to keep talking to him because our hearing is one of the last things to go.  So I went back and I just said whatever came into my mind.

I reminded him of things we had done together, the way I remembered them, and how much he meant to me.  The next morning he was much more conscious, at least for short periods of time. When he asked if I would read some of the book to him, which was now in galley form, I said sure.

I started with Geoffrey Bodine, one of Nascar’s top drivers of all time, because my dad liked sports and I thought he’d enjoy hearing about Geoffrey competitive spirit. Then as I was reading, I paused, because I came across the part where Geoffrey talks about being in an accident and almost dying. I had forgotten I had written about that, and I wasn’t sure if it would upset my dad. Opening his eyes, my dad said, “What’s the matter? Why did you stop?” And I just said something about just losing my place.

Then I continued reading about how on a video replay of the accident, even in slow motion, you could not count how many times the vehicle Geoffrey was in flipped over. The announcer assumed that Geoffrey was no longer with us. Then Geoffrey said he had a vision of his father, who had died three years earlier. “He looked great and all of that,” Geoffrey said, “and I told him, ‘Dad I’m coming to see you.’ Then my dad said, “No. It’s not time. You have more to do.” And Geoffrey’s father disappeared.  Then Geoffrey said “I really don’t believe I spoke with my father.” “No?” I asked. “No. he replied. “I just believe this is how God speaks to us. He comes to us at a time when we are ready, in a voice we’ll recognize, with a message we need to hear.”

My dad said, “Wow, he was almost there. That’s really good. It’s very real.”

Then my dad, who, when he was still in 11th grade joined the navy because he just could not wait by the sidelines while others went to fight in World War II, asked me to read to him about Samuel Pisar, the holocaust survivor I had interviewed, who went on to become an advisor to President Kennedy. When Samuel was just 14 years old, in the gas chamber in Auschwitz, he saw a bucket and a brush on the wall and, he reached for them, and began scrubbing the floor, with every ounce of energy, as if it was his job. Moving his way backward, ever so slowly, he scrubbed until he reached the open door. Then a Nazi soldier clicked his gun and said, “Boy, do you call this clean?” “No, sir,” he said, and scrubbed with every ounce of energy he had. Then he looked up and the Nazi solider was gone. So, he turned around and carried the bucket and the brush through the door and out in the open. And my dad wiped away a tear. Then he looked over at me and whispered, “That’s powerful”.

My dad rarely gave me advice. That wasn’t his style. One time however after Donna and I were married for a little more than four years, my dad and I were walking along the beach at the New Jersey shore, where my parents had a summer home. He asked if we were thinking about having children, and I said, “We’d like to, dad, but this is the last year of Governor Byrne’s second term. And he only thing I know for sure is I won’t be writing speeches for him in a few months. So, I’m not sure what’s going on.” My dad nodded, then said, “I know what you mean. Just before your mother and I had you, I was waiting to get into the union, and I wasn’t sure I’d get in or not.  Of course, if we had waited for the perfect time to have you, you would never have arrived.” And we both laughed at the thought that if he and my mom had waited even a little bit longer, then he and I would not be having this conversation.  But his story was freeing, because about nine or so months later, our first daughter Kate was born.

So there you have it.

Advice either rings true or it does not. As I reflect on Father’s Day, all I can tell you for certain is that we pass things on, even when we don’t mean to. What is good advice? Who knows? It’s got something to do with the message, depends on who is delivering it, and has a lot to do with the timing.

And sometimes it just takes a while to get the message.