On the last Saturday in February, my sister Rebecca and I were talking about life lessons we’d learned from our father. It was a joking conversation, because Dad had never really been a lesson-doling-out kind of guy. I think that Rebecca and I distilled it down to two essential truths: Always tip well, and don’t waste time watching movies made by Michael Bay. We laughed and shook our heads, rolling our eyes at the silly man we call Dad.
A month later, that conversation came back to haunt us in a powerful and tragic way. Because at the end of March, Dad passed away. It still feels weird to type those words, as if I were writing a first-person account of someone else’s life. His death was completely unexpected: he just went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up. He was sixty-three years old, which is much too young to have shuffled off his mortal coil.
Since his passing I have wanted to write about him, but it’s been too difficult (just writing the last two paragraphs has taken me about twelve weeks). After all, how can you sum up a person in a few words? You can’t, of course. You can’t even sum up a person in a million words. And so, recalling that lighthearted February conversation, I’ve tried to set my mind to really identifying some of the many things I’ve learned from my father. Here are a few that I’d like to share:
A job well done is a satisfaction all its own.
My father was a projectionist (he ran movies). He started in that field around 1970, and he stayed with it all his life. It was a very cool job: when I was a kid we could almost always get into movies for free, and he often got to run preview screenings so he would know what movies were worth watching before everyone else. Everyone who worked with my dad knew what a perfectionist he was. He wanted every show to be flawless: clear picture, perfectly-balanced sound. He did his job right because in his mind, that was the only way to do it. He took a lot of satisfaction from doing his job well.
Generosity is its own reward.
Or I could just as easily have said: a generous man will never know want. I’ve never met a person who was more free and generous with his possessions than my father. He always had spare change for people on the street. A friend needed a car to drive to Texas after his mother passed away, and Dad loaned it to him. Although he was never even close to wealthy, and he was in his fifties before he bought his first home or his first new car, my father always seemed to have what needed to be comfortable.
Knowledge is more valuable than rubies.
Dad was the first person in his family to go to college. He moved from a small Indiana town to attend the University of Virginia on scholarship. He spoke five languages. He knew everything, and I mean everything. He could answer questions on every subject (well, except opera and sports – he was never really “up” on those!). And he never stopped learning, never stopped studying. Everything fascinated him.
Laughter is life.
Dad had the greatest sense of humor. He loved to laugh. Because of him I became an early fan of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, the Firesign Theatre (I could go on). Regardless of anything, we could always laugh together. Dad was more than just “Dad” to me. He was a friend, a buddy. We would have long conversations about books and movies and philosophy and all sorts of random topics. He laid the artistic groundwork on which I built my novels; he helped lay the moral and humanitarian groundwork on which I’ve built my life; he inspired me in ways that I haven’t even discovered yet. I grieve the loss of my father, but more than that: I miss my friend.
So what do we do, when a friend departs? We close down shop for them: tie up the loose ends, close the accounts, send out the notices. We cry and remember and try to think about how lucky we were to have had them in our lives, instead of how unfortunate we are to have lost them. This blog is part of that process, as are the subsequent blogs which I’ll write. I don’t know when I’ll write them or what they’ll be about, but I will write. Because that’s what I do. And to those of you who are reading this: thanks for letting me do it. Thank you for listening.