25 January 2006

Happy Birthday, Daddy -

"To become a father is not difficult, but to be a father is." ~ Unknown

I always teased my friends, that my Dad was the clone of one Mister Fred Rogers, except, of course, that he smoked a pipe which I don't think Mister Rogers ever did. Other than that, there were always such wonderful similarities between the two men. Both were gentle, loved children and always had time to listen to whatever problem might be weighing on their offspring, or whatever other young people might come to visit for advice. Even if it was during a period of the year when my father was busy closing out his "end of the year" accounting, if someone needed his counsel, or maybe just an ear or even a place to vent their frustration, it was common knowledge that my Dad's room was always open. Even if the angst that needed to be discussed happened at 3:30 AM.

If I had to pick just a few adjectives to describe this amazing, humble, wise and witty guy that I refer to, more often than not, as my Daddy, I could never truly capture his essence with mere words. You'd have to know him to appreciate how special he is, and many, many of my friends, co-workers and even the mailman have had the pleasure of meeting this guy and it never fails, when anyone leaves after having spent time in his company, they come out with a smile and are better versed in computer technology and probably know more about our family tree and my Dad's vast store of genealogical facts on so many families that belong to people who have sought his guidance in trying to track down a stray branch or two.

In my almost 46 years on this planet (February 6th - yikes!), I can honestly say that, though I have seen him on very rare occasions, quietly annoyed or disappointed, I have never seen him express anything resembling anger. That's a rare thing indeed, when you consider that he was half of the team that parented me! Oh, I'm sure I gave his gentle spirit a run for it's money from time to time, but something always told me that, in the end, to disappoint my Dad, to live with the knowledge that I had let him down, was usually enough to keep me from taking things too far. There are a few special people in this world who you just never want to see unhappy or sad, because seeing them content and at one with the world, seems to bolster the rest of us, challenging us lesser mortals to see if we can take a peek through the lens through which they view life, hoping to catch whatever it is they have that makes being in their company, one of the finest gifts life has to offer. Growing up, the worst punishment, the thing I feared most when I knew I'd done something that wouldn't please my parents, was dealing with the fact that I might have let my Dad or Mom down.

My father's nature isn't the result of some pain-free life where things always went smooth as silk. He lost his Mother to breast cancer when he was just 18 years old and faraway on a ship in the South Pacific. Because he was in the process of changing ships and hadn't read any mail for about six weeks, when he finally got onboard the ship he was assigned to and his mail caught up with him, the first letter he read was from a sister who wrote of the family having just returned from his mother's funeral. There he was, alone on a new ship, bobbing on a vast ocean, knowing absolutely no one on board. My Dad didn't even have a bunk to sleep on because the man he was replacing hadn't taken off. I asked him how he handled such news under such lonely circumstances? He told me he found the ship's chaplain and talked with him for a bit, and then he found a corner, alone with his duffle bag and letters, where he read them again and he cried. Every time I imagine my Dad as that young sailor, I get a lump in my throat and I feel tears threaten.

But he moved forward. His sunny disposition stood him well and he went on to meet my mother and on their third date, he proposed. She accepted and they married a few months later after he was discharged from the Navy. Whatever magic was exchanged between the two of them must have been some powerful stuff because, after over 59 years of being married, they still light up when the other one walks in a room. They dote on each other. They still joke and trade good-natured barbs and sometimes as I'm sitting upstairs working on something, I can hear their voices emanating from their bedroom downstairs and I hear the conversations about people they used to know, or maybe some interesting find my father has dug up on his on-going genealogical search.

Sometimes I wonder, after over 59 years, haven't they said everything that can be said? How do they find new things to talk about and laugh? Ahhhh, perhaps therein lies the secret to their marital success - they still treat one another as if the other one is the most important person on the planet. Their affection isn't merely for show because it happens even when the only people in the house are our four cats and dog. They share each meal together. They hold hands when they bless their food. They have somehow mastered the challenging concept of give and take and resolving any looming conflict before it is tucked away only to fester and become an issue later. Festering isn't just bad for splinters.

I grew up thinking everyones parents behaved this way. My childhood was right out of an episode of "Leave It To Beaver" and my parents could have easily passed for Ward and June Cleaver. It wasn't until after I stepped outside the cozy confines of my own home that I realized that many people don't behave this way. There was never any shouting or yelling or slammed doors in our home. The only time I ever heard a voice raised was when my Mom would call my Dad in from the yard to let him know supper was ready and that he had worked long enough. Of course, this meant that I had to learn all by myself how to fight and scrap and be completely disagreeable at times. They sure never bothered to teach me any of that - but somehow I got a pretty good outside education, because I can be fairly difficult and maybe even a little high maintenance from time to time, attributes that can be assigned to neither of my parents. In all fairness, the negative aspects of my persona were not as a result of their parenting. I should come with a disclaimer stamped on my forehead. I can get a little scrappy sometimes, as Katie, Justin or those in my inner circle will readily attest. It's something I work on and though I don't tease myself into believing I will ever be as pleasant and agreeable as those two old-timers downstairs, it's certainly someting to strive for. Progress...not perfection.

Throughout the 59 plus years of my parents union, they have made many moves. I am sure they were born with just a bit of gypsy blood coursing through their veins, because we moved so many times during my childhood - Dad would get settled in a job and then the phone would ring and a better offer would be put on the table, more money, a company car, from a competing coal company and before you could say "But I like it here!", the moving van would be pulling up out front and away we would go. I did seem to inherit that facet of their personality and have taken the tradition to new heights and several different states.

My parents have lived through the loss of my sister, who died unexpectedly in 1973 at the very young age of 23. They mourned, along with her husband, when they lost their oldest daughter. They celebrated a couple of years later, as their son-in-law took a new wife and they graciously welcomed Mary Jane into the fold and let me know in no uncertain terms that she was to be treated with kindness and as a member of our family, because that's how my sister would have wanted it. What an amazing example they were to me - as they have been so many times and they taught me the most important lessons by example, rather than lecture. They lived what they believed and that's pretty powerful.

My parents were there for me when I got married, gave birth to my daughter, Katie and my son, Justin, and when my father retired in 1986 from Hawk's Nest Mining Company, they pulled up stakes and moved to Amarillo, Texas. Why Amarillo? Because that's where their grandchildren were growing up and they weren't about to miss any of that. They followed along to San Antonio, San Angelo, Cleveland, El Paso, Fort Lauderdale, Charleston, SC, back to Amarillo and finally here, to Wilmington. That's a lot of moves in retirement, but they never missed a birthday, a special school function or just the day-to-day stuff that go with raising kids and being doting grandparents.

They saw me through a marriage that started unraveling, and they were right there for me when the final thread was pulled and the divorce was final. They didn't allow me to take time off to feel sorry for myself - they convinced me that my life was anything but over and that I had kids who needed me and I'd better suit up and show up because kids don't take time off from growing up until their parents decide they have it all together. My parents loaned me some of their strength and grit, until I could recover my own.

And just like everything else, they were right there for me when my alcoholism reared its nasty head. As with every other bump and challenge, they loved me right through that and they told me they knew I would be successful with a conviction and sincerity that it helped me believe that I really would be OK. I can't imagine how I could have gotten through those scary first few weeks without their love and support and encouragement. My Dad even attended a few AA meetings with me in those early months and we had to laugh - but then I got a little worried. Most AA meetings are held in churches and my father has a long-running history of falling asleep in church. I could just see him nodding off and maybe even falling forward and then trying to convince the group that he really wasn't the one that needed to be there!

My parents seem to hold to the belief that things will eventually resolve if you just let the person going through the tough spots know that you care and will be there for them, no matter what. Before joining AA, I thought that was a bit too simplistic and their methods never appeared in any of my advanced psychology classes or textbooks. After dealing with my own challenges of divorce, recovery, periods of fear and always second-guessing myself, I have come to realize that their ideas and belief systems work better than the most expensive psychotherapy or latest psychological modalities for treating high anxiety and stress. My parents seem to intrinsically know that generous amounts of love, can see almost anyone through almost anything. Everything is possible if there is love.

I'm almost 46 and still to this day, the thought of disappointing or doing anything to hurt my Mom and Dad is something I want to avoid at all cost. I've seen their track record and I know their advice is 99.9% on target. They've just proven themselves right way too many times for me to question their judgment or advice. They are always my first and second opinion and what they offer always makes the most sense and, of course, it works.

I am such a blessed woman. I still have these two amazing people in my life and I can't imagine landing with better parents. God most certainly was looking out for me when he placed me with them - though he must have had a sense of humor to make such a selection for them in the form of me.

Happy Birthday Daddy. Thank you for sharing so much with us over the years. Thank you for always being there for your family in every way possible. You are one of the coolest 81 year olds on the planet and it's no wonder that women are still trying to take you from my Mom. You can't really blame them, but thank God you are wise enough to know that no one could take care of you, as she does all of us, as well as Mom. Every person in this house is better off because you are always ready with a smile, a joke, a laugh and every now and then, a smart-ass remark or two.

We love you both.

Susie, Katie & Justin