[ NB: Though this is my research blog, I sometimes write posts that are more personal in nature. This is one of those times. ]
In early 2008, my Dad died.
He was a tough, tough man; a smart man, and a man of few words that were often heavy with meaning.
I watched him die. Held him as he breathed his last breath. This was a hard thing. Seeing a man tough as nails reduced to bones by cancer.
My Dad and I weren't close, but we weren't distant.
I think about the last 10 days of his life a lot. I think about seeing him die. You can't forget something like that.
I don't want to.
My brother and I eulogized my Dad at his memorial service. I'm reproducing my part of the eulogy here because when I think of my Dad, I think of what ran through my head during the final days and hours of his life, and immediately afterward.
Small things make a life, and small things comprise love and interpersonal relationships and family.
Small things matter.
I’ve had time to think, these last few days of my father’s life, about my most meaningful memories of our relationship. The first thing that comes to mind is that I wish I had the opportunity to hear how he would approach the same question, his perspective on the most meaningful memories of our relationship as father and son. So, before I talk a little about what repeatedly occurred to me as we spent our final hours together, I think it’s worth speculating that we might find some important solace in approaching those we love, while we still have ample opportunity, and pose the same question of each other.
As I sat next to my dad the last few days, it was profoundly interesting to consider the memories that were most vivid. It seems that the most important events for me, as I thought about him while he prepared to face death, were not such important events in the grand scheme of things. At least not on the surface, anyway.
Right now, the most vivid and recurrent memory, where just my dad and I were spending time together, won’t seem like much of an event at all. When I was around ten or so, I had some kind of day trip, maybe with school or some other group, at Mt. Diablo, forty minutes or so from our home in Dublin, CA. I can’t even remember why I was there, or in what context. I don’t even remember who took me up the mountain that day, just that my dad picked me up in his red, two-tone Ford F-150 around dusk.
Darkness fell as we drove the winding road down the mountain, my dad and I not saying much to each other, but happy in each other’s company. More important than whatever I had done that day—climbing rocks, hiking, etc.—was my hunger for dinner, and my dad’s suggestion that we find a Foster’s Freeze instead of waiting until we got home. I won’t say that Foster’s was my favorite restaurant, but I loved the prospect of having a chocolate dipped soft-serve cone after dinner. As we neared the bottom of the mountain in the increasing darkness, my hunger and anticipation built as my dad took a few unfamiliar streets in search of a Foster’s Freeze.
I recall some frustration, some detours, but eventual, ultimate success: a booth with my dad, a hamburger and fries in an unfamiliar city after dark, and a cone of soft-serve vanilla ice-cream, dipped in crunchy chocolate.
We drove home together, full and happy, listening to whatever was on the radio, a Giants game perhaps, on KNBR 680.
Why should such a thing be so vivid a memory for me, at this stage, just before and after my dad’s death? It’s difficult to make clear meaning out of the complex and convoluted memories and nuances of consciousness that we all wade through in times of stress and struggle. Who can say, for example, what my dad was thinking about as he neared death…
For me, the trip to Foster’s Freeze stands out, I believe, because it’s such a pleasant and simple reflection of a time when it was just dad and me. It didn’t involve much money, or an extravagant trip, or a significant milestone, though those things are surely important. Instead, it was a simple moment in a complex and lifelong relationship, one of literally hundreds of thousands of similar moments that make up the incredible fabric of meaningful human relationships, relationships between parents and kids, husbands and wives, and lifelong friends.
My dad did lots of nice things for me, things that had much larger implications in the scheme of things; he bought me a car, for example, and drove a couch and other household items 600 miles in a U-haul to Oregon to help me settle in for college. But far more important to me: he did little things really well. Like teaching me to fish, helping me to break in my baseball glove, improving my vocabulary, and taking me for a burger and an ice-cream cone.
I know that my dad loved my brother and I, and I know that he was happy we were with him these last few days. More importantly, I know my dad loved Les. Sure, they took some fantastic trips together, and did some significant things as a couple in the last 20 years. But I will be perpetually thankful that my dad had Les to do those things, those hundreds of thousands of little, simple things for him and with him as my brother and I moved away and began to take our own kids out for ice-cream…