From about the age of 10 and through my teen years I really thought my dad liked to get up early on Sunday mornings and muck out horse stalls. I would get to the barn a little earlier than him to gather the wheelbarrows, pitchforks, and shovels, and let some horses out into their paddocks so I’d have some empty stalls to get started on. The list of stalls of 15 or so stalls to do those mornings would have been a lot more daunting if Dad didn’t show up with coffee in one hand (for him) and hot chocolate (for me) and a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins in the other hand about an hour into the process.
He’d stay until the last of the new bedding was in the last stall, and the barn aisles swept. Sometimes he’d stay to watch me ride; other times he’d come talk to my horse Joey, and then head home to do yard work, or office work. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the real reason is now obvious: he didn’t come muck stalls with me because he liked to shovel horse manure, or because he had nothing else to do; he did it to spend time with me, and to support the biggest passion of my life—horses.
|Horses, the early years. Dad is the one behind the camera. (Personal Collection)|
In that small snapshot of one moment with Dad, his willingness to do anything for his kids and to be close to them shines clear, as it does in every photo in the virtual photo album stored in my mind. Flipping through the rolls and rolls of photos I’ve catalogued, I laugh at some, tear up at others, blush and feel comforted by yet others; but in all of them I know that the backdrop of the moment is love.
There are times when I smile, and chuckle…like the recent time when he took a trip up from Florida to help my brother build a deck in his backyard. If not for an engineering friend of my brother’s, my dad would have needed to extend his trip another week in order to turn the piles of lumber, bolts, and nails into a perfect deck. The delay certainly had at least something to do with my brother David’s frequent trips to Home Depot for something else he forgot, and my dad’s pauses in work to scratch his head and ponder over something that looked not quite right. He’d scratch his head and say, “I’ll be damned.” My dad was going to get it perfect even if it took an extra day, and even more head scratching and trips to Home Depot. With this project, as with any others we did with him, Dad was going to hang in there with us for however long it took to get the job done.
Some of our early jobs with Dad included weeding the driveway, picking up sticks before mowing the lawn, and raking leaves. While my brother and I both had our own tactics for trying to skip out on the tasks, by taking lots of breaks or showing up late, Dad would stay out there through the whole process. And even though my parents got divorced, and Dad moved out of the house, he was still involved in our daily lives, and never abandoned his “Task Master” title. Dad would stop by to check in on the house, and us, and the chores I’m sure we were supposed to do, but didn’t, and to pick us up for pizza or other dinners out. (The one thing that Dad didn’t do was cook.). During these times, he would as a ton of questions about our lives—none of which I really wanted to answer. As a very quiet teenage girl, I just wanted to be left alone for a good bit of the time at home, and I cringe now to think that there was ever a time when I didn’t want to talk with him.
I know it was not easy on him to not see us every day, and in those times when he wasn’t around, he wondered what he was missing. Dad just wanted to get the richest picture of our lives that he could. Thus, the questions and clarifications just kept coming no matter how hard you tried to avoid them or how exasperated you got. In addition to his teachings of standing our ground and working hard, he also passed on this desire to get every single detail to a situation, even if we need to repeat everything we hear. I’m sure I have a line of friends who would really like to thank him for that, and recount a time when they were just as exasperated as I was as a teenager. And yet, getting those details has also benefited me in many more ways than it has ever frustrated others—from writing articles to recounting the vet’s diagnosis of the family dog. In part, “getting it right” is about details, but moreover it is about keeping integrity and caring enough to get the details straight.
I remember when I was about eight years old, and my dad took us on a walk through my grandparent’s 26 acres in Maryland, through rows of corn, fields, and woods, to show us a tiny, three-room shack. The windows must have been long broken out of their frames. There was nothing much in the house that I can remember, except maybe a partially hung piece of cloth draping from the window and a shelf or two on the walls. When he told us that this was the house he was born in and lived in for a bit of time before the family moved to their current house, I was shocked—how could we have ended up in our comfortable, clean, three-bedroom colonial in Connecticut, when he was born into what reminded me of the abandoned chicken coop in the lot next to our house?
|Dad, with me and my brother (Personal Collection)|
A lot of the answer to that question lay in hard work—and my dad’s intelligence. Dad won a scholarship to Swarthmore College and worked his way through school. He played football until his knees wouldn’t let him play anymore, and then he stayed in the game by becoming the team’s trainer, wrapping up injuries before, during, and after practices and games. He really wanted to be a doctor, but when it came time to go to medical school, he couldn’t come up with the money, and his pride prevented him from allowing a willing sponsor to pay for his tuition. Instead Dad, found other ways to stay involved in medicine. He worked at companies that developed medical devices, and then he signed up to be a volunteer EMT for a period of time. And all the while he was (and still is) the go-to source for a lot of medical questions and even injuries.
When I shattered my ankle, Dad was living in Florida, and I could tell he wanted to be there with me, in part to comfort me, but I also know he was dying to see what kind of contraption they used to put the joint back together. He would try to figure out why they would do this or that. Luckily for Dad, I gave a few very good instances to try out his medical curiosity and EMT skills over the years, from broken fingers and dislocated kneecaps to split lips requiring stitches and broken teeth.
Through all of these injuries, I learned to stay tough and find new ways to do the things I love. With a stiff ankle, riding horses and running wouldn’t ever be the same, but I found new ways to enjoy horses and the outdoors. I gained an appreciation for what my body still could do. I also learned that I did not have to give up on my passions even if it meant enjoying them in a less desirable way.
From his interest in medicine and his days as a striving student, Dad also taught a lesson that he didn’t learn the first time—if someone presents you with an opportunity to achieve a life-long dream, take it, and don’t let your pride get in the way of that. Hard work, integrity, and intelligence can get you a long way, but sometimes we need a little help. And that’s okay. And it’s also okay—and important—to give yourself a break, and have a little fun. He pointed these out me a lot, as these are lessons that he didn’t learn when he was my age, and he didn’t want me to miss a moment of all the moments life had and has to offer. I think he saw a lot of himself in me, especially when it came to school and work.
My dad has also had a really keen awareness of when things aren’t quite right with us kids. As a teen, this, too, used to frustrate the heck out of me. I didn’t want to talk about what was wrong, but he just kept asking. And I just kept shrinking away into my imaginary corner, sealing my lips even tighter. Yet, Dad just kept plugging away, putting in 100% into his relationship with us kids, even when he wasn’t getting anything back. This is something I’m still very much learning from him, and something that still blows me away. It’d not easy to put so much effort into a relationship when it feels like the other person doesn’t want to be open with you. I credit our solid, close relationship of today to his never giving up on me.
I credit his open mind for helping me bring significant people in my life into the family. While it took me years to be open with myself that I wasn’t straight, that I was different than I thought I was supposed to be; it took me many more to tell anyone else, let alone my own family. As I was wandering along a path trying to figure out what doors were safe to enter, what people were safe to tell, and learning that I would need to be true to me, no matter the entry point, my dad was making sure that any door I ended up at was unlocked and open.
|Dad and me (Personal Collection)|
He never asked me if I had a “guy” in my life, when I was going to get married, and have children. He simply would ask if I was happy and had I met anyone special in my life. He made sure that I knew he supported all gay rights, and would try to sway my conservative-leaning brother to see marriage as something for any couple. His instincts were very good, and at some point, I knew he knew. I knew he loved me no matter who I loved. I knew I was safe. And it was safe to let him in, and others, too. He did what every parent, at their root, wants to do—love their children, keep them safe, and help them to feel loved and quiet their fears.
I’m especially grateful for my dad’s strength and determination, and his streak of stubbornness, which I have undoubtedly inherited. I wonder if I would have ever come to feel so safe sharing with my family, if not for our conversations in my adult life, which may have never taken place if he did not take on cancer with every bit of the strength, determination, and stubbornness he had. Just after I graduated college, Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He never told us until after treatments that he had less than a 20% chance of surviving.
In part, he was protecting us. But he was also determined to beat the cancer, and refused to look at anything except for landing in that 20% group of cancer survivors. He simply said, “I’m going to be in that group,” and that was that. Just like he taught us when he coached my youth rec. soccer team, when you come to play, and you might as well come to win. He expected nothing less from us than our absolute best kicks, throw-ins, and goal saves. And he expected nothing less than the best, most aggressive treatments from his doctors, and was bound and determined to do everything just a little bit better than the last patient. To my dad’s oncologist, he is her miracle patient. To me, my dad is my hero.