Sunday, June 19, 2011

A few years ago, at a family gathering, a cousin-in-law said to me, “I’ve always wondered what it must have been like growing up with your father. He’s like a Marine. He’s so strict.”

My response: “Really, it’s just the crew cut.”

But I get that all the time about my Dad. People have this image of him that’s kind of ludicrous, mostly because of his haircut. It’s probably inaccurate to most actual Marines too, but just to make one thing clear right here: my father has not been in any branch of the military. Ever. He went in for his draft physical during the 1950s and was summarily tossed, because he’d had rheumatic fever twice as a child.

So really, it is just a haircut, not a personal statement, and he’s had it since he was five. I would have to say that seventy years later, that cut has served him pretty well all these years. Plus, there’s no worrying about Rogaine or that bald spot at the back of your head when it’s a crew cut.

Not that my Dad has ever been the kind of guy who’d worry about a bald spot, because more than anyone I know, my Dad seems to be profoundly comfortable in his own skin (note to self: be more like Dad, stop saving up for Botox injections). I wrote last month about my Mom and how she and I both have issues with it not being easy “being green.” My Dad would be the guy most likely to say, “yeah, I’m green. Anyone who can’t deal with me being green…that’s their problem, not mine” or, maybe even more likely, “am I green?”...shrug…”hadn’t noticed.”

Another thing about my Dad: he has a bionic heart. He’s all heart. And I mean that literally and figuratively. Dad may well have been the last kid in America to have rheumatic fever and although he doesn’t talk about how difficult it was or how serious it was, a few years ago – while my Mom and I were waiting with my Uncle Andy in the waiting room of St. Francis Hospital as my Dad underwent his second heart valve replacement (courtesy of the childhood rheumatic fever, he has two artificial heart valves, a pacemaker, and an awesome cardiologist with a God Complex), Uncle Andy told us about how when my Dad was seven or eight, and going through his second bout of rheumatic fever, the other kids in the family pushed him around in a baby carriage while on summer vacation up in Massachusetts because he didn’t have the leg strength to walk.

That’s not the story my father tells about the rheumatic fever, and I have a feeling if I asked him about it he would probably again shrug his shoulders and say “had to get around somehow.” He also might say that Uncle Andy is getting senile and it wasn’t my Dad in the carriage, but Uncle Bob, who was two at the time. (One never knows with some of these seventysomethings what is real and what is someone else’s story). The story Dad tells about the rheumatic fever is that after he recovered, the doctors didn’t want him to play sports. He was banned from playing football; Dad gave in on football and was the waterboy for the football team, but he also decided to run EVERYWHERE. He ran to the store. He ran to school. He ran in the gym and played basketball and baseball despite the doctors’ qualms. He ran, because, as he tells me, “I was going to run or I was going to die trying.”

I think that’s a motto that he lived by from that day forward – and it’s one I wish I lived by more – because Dad accomplished more in his corner of the world than almost anyone I know. Not only did he thumb his nose at the doctors and play sports, but once he hit adulthood (having run around and NOT died trying), he ended up teaching (where he met my Mom), getting a doctoral degree, officiating football, being a regional superintendent, the mayor of Garden City, and a deacon at Church. And the thing is, despite accomplishing all this, I know that Dad gave up a lot for Mom and me, and also held himself back because of concerns about his health, too (example: he had an “IN CASE OF DEATH” file in his file cabinet, as he was prepared to die very young, and he wanted Mom and I to know exactly what to do “IN CASE OF DEATH.” Let me tell you how weird it was to see that file behind the soccer coaching file…). He wanted to be a School Superintendent, instead of maxing out at Assistant Super, and if you know anything about Long Island school politics, you have to leave, be a Superintendent somewhere upstate or out-of-state, and then come back in a blaze of glory to Long Island in the number one job. (I know, it’s hard to put Long Island and “blaze of glory” in the same sentence unless the sentence also involves Mike Bossy, but there you have it.)

Usually, you hear about men who are high achievers like that and then the stories come pouring out about how they didn’t spend enough time with their family. Not so my Dad, because Dad also was the coach of my softball team for all the years I played, stood on the sidelines of all my soccer games, picked me up at the ice rink on the way home from work after my Mom dropped me off, suited me up when I decided to give ice hockey a try (and even – along with Mom – was obliging enough to hide my pigtails in my helmet lest any of the boys know there was a girl on the ice), drove my teenage friends and I into Lincoln Center every weekend when we decided that it would be a good idea to get season tickets (wait, sports term – subscription seats) to ABT, and even suffered through more than one rock concert as the go-to chaperone Dad during my teen years. Actually, come to think of it, he was often the one who waited on line for tickets, back in the olden days of “you have to wait on line at Ticketmaster.”

My Dad has also always had a strong sense of what is right and the self-discipline to do what is right. Maybe this is where the “Marine” thing comes in – and if it’s so, it would be nice if EVERYONE were mistaken for a Marine -- but one of the great things about Dad is that I don’t think NOT living up to his commitments and obligations ever even crosses his mind. (Sidebar on the self-discipline: my Dad can take a bit of a Milky Way Dark, enjoy it, and then leave the rest of the bar to eat A DAY OR TWO LATER. Ok, maybe that goes past self-discipline into pathology.)

And now I’m starting to get annoyed at myself with this blog because I feel like I’m not saying what I wanted to say about my Dad. I haven’t even touched on his amazing sense of humor… So let me finish with a story that maybe makes a start at summing up who my Dad really is….and then I can go and beat myself up for not doing well enough with this blog posting in peace.

Almost a decade ago, my family went through a really dark period – the kind of medical storm that could only happen -- and has happened, repeatedly -- to my parents. My dad had to have surgery to repair a hernia, which was apparently done in the hospital barn by Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, as it immediately became infected with three different bacteria and required a second surgery to fix. While all this was going on, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have a double mastectomy. My mother’s surgeon, upon hearing that my father was walking around with a post-surgical infection, flipped out and said she’d either have to delay my mom’s surgery (we wouldn’t hear of it) or my Mom and my Dad couldn’t be in the same place, couldn’t touch the same towels, couldn’t be anywhere near each other, until one of their surgical wounds had completely closed.

Well, there’s a challenge.

Of course, Dad’s doctors thought Mom’s surgeon was being hysterical (she was, after all, a woman…), but they had no choice but to go along. So Dad was farmed out to my uncle’s apartment in the village while my Mom came back to the house. Dad considered himself well enough to drive at that point (I seem to remember that his doctors did not agree), but every day while he was “banned from the ranch” he drove over and stood outside the back window of the kitchen, hernia wound packed and bandaged and taped, talking to my Mom at the kitchen table, just to make sure she was managing.

Every day.

Because that’s who my Dad is. He’s someone who understands that courage, loyalty, faith, love, a sense of humor, and the self-discipline to do what is right are just about the only weapons you’ve got, and the only choices you really have – other than quitting, which isn’t really an option – are to run or die trying. If that makes him strict and Marine-like, well, Semper Fi.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
I couldn’t be happier or more blessed that you’re my Dad, and I love you!