my dad

Andy and I started this blog share with friends and family all things Foreign Service related. We’ve tried our best to stick to that original goal, which is why it’s been hard lately to know what to say. I could write about our growing pile of stuff to ship over to Benin or developments on the nanny front, but that seems disingenuous, because these things haven’t really been the focus of our lives recently.

My dad passed away last week.

There’s not a lot I’m ready to say about that — or that I’ll necessary ever decide to post here — but I also couldn’t not mention it at all.

There is a small Foreign Service element to the story, though, in that I’m glad my dad got to see me start down this career path. Before joining, I spent three years at educational travel company, something my dad never really understood. “You went to Yale for this?” he always teased, but beneath his teasing was real concern about my professional future. It was actually an interesting job, but it wasn’t the right job for me, and he could surely sense my dissatisfaction when I talked about it. He was thrilled about the idea of the foreign service, though. He loved telling people I was becoming a diplomat, and he even applied for his first passport just a month or so ago in anticipation of a cruise that he unfortunately never got to take.

I also think the foreign service was what endeared Andy to my dad. It wasn’t that my dad ever didn’t like Andy, but they were very different people and also never spent a significant amount of time together. However, I honestly think the moment my dad decided our marriage was actually going to work was when he heard that Andy got a higher score than I did on the Oral Assessment. This was his proof that Andy was smart and motivated and would challenge me. Of course, he never articulated it like that — he just teased me about it often, during nearly every phone call, even up until recently, many many months after Andy’s OA.

Of course, the timing of my dad’s death was horrible. It was too soon. And only a month before he would have gotten to meet his first grandchild. But, even though it’s a very small thing, and hardly consolation, I’m glad he got to see me get started with this career. I think it was probably a relief to him to feel like my life was on the right track.

* * *

Here’s something I wrote for the funeral:

I can’t imagine it’s a surprise to any of you to hear me admit that my dad had a few rough years. Okay, maybe a rough few decades. After all, he readily admitted it himself.

Throughout this time there was a story my mom liked to tell me. It went something like this. Once when I was two years old, I suddenly stopped breathing and was starting to turn blue, and she and my dad rushed me to the emergency room. It turned out to be nothing serious, but the doctors decided to keep me overnight for observation anyway, hooked up to wires and monitors as I lay in an over-sized crib. My dad hated the sight of me there so much — so confused, scared and lonely — that he decided to climb in that over-sized crib, twist his limbs into an awkward position and spend the night right there with me.

I think my mom liked to tell me this story as if to say, “See, even though your dad is struggling with some things right now, deep down, he really does love you.”

To be perfectly honest, there were times growing up, after my parents divorced, when that didn’t feel like enough. I longed for the sort of family and especially the sort of dad you saw on TV shows – the softball coach, not the guy on the bleachers talking loudly on his giant portable phone, back before that was acceptable public behavior. It was embarrassing when he forgot he was supposed to pick me up from latchkey and then had to hand over a dollar for every minute he was late. It was embarrassing when he took Bess and me to the mall and, just to see us squirm, told us that if we wouldn’t walk past our friends holding his hand, he would, right there, in front of everyone, sing.

As I grew older, though, I started to see the humor in these sort of stories and ultimately came to see my dad differently too. Him crawling into the crib with me wasn’t just proof that way back when, at one point, he really did love me. No, it was more than that. It was the perfect example of the sort of dad he was all along: out of his element with the whole parenting thing at times, but well intentioned, and most importantly, there.

The truth is, even when going through rough patches in his own life, my dad never disappeared from mine. When we lived in St. Louis, Bess and I spent every Wednesday and Saturday night at his apartment. He celebrated birthdays and holidays with us too. Sure, sometimes we had to call him three or four times on Christmas morning to remind him to get out of bed and come over, but eventually he always did. When we moved to Marshall he made the three-hour drive along I-70 often. In college and grad school, there were regular calls and visits during breaks. And in the last few years those calls became much more frequent — checking in on what I was up to, but also regaling me with stories from my childhood that for whatever reason had popped into his mind that day.

“Remember when Bess cut up that school project of yours, and you came to me, crying, “I’m in biiiiiiig trouble?”

“Remember that time when you ran in the room, so excited to share what you’d just learned on a commercial? ‘Dad, did you know that at Syms, if you wait 30 days, your suit will be 30% less? That’s because an educated consumer is the best customer!”

“You know, Alex,” he liked to remind me, “You’re probably the only kid in the world who would ask if it was bedtime yet.”

I was a serious, uptight kid — very much unlike my dad — and that always amused him. Bess, on the other hand, was even more free spirited and uninhibited than he was, and that amused him too. It became obvious in recent years that he treasured those memories of us growing up. I think, in fact, that he regretted not having more of them.

But I hope he knows that he did play an important role in our lives. To be fair, my mom did the brunt of the dirty work in raising Bess and me, but my dad — through always being there, and always being himself — taught us a lot too.

Things like:

  • No matter what anyone says, Imo’s, White Castle and Bissinger’s are perfectly acceptable breakfast foods.
  • Getting embarrassed is silly. Who cares what other people think?
  • So sing if you want, just as long as you know that musical ability doesn’t run in the family.
  • Other things that don’t run in our genes: athleticism or metabolism.
  • Professional and financial success aren’t what will make you happy.
  • What will make you happy are the little things you enjoy, from a good bridge game to an interesting antique find to falling asleep with a show on TV and a dog in the bed.
  • And also, to be happy, you have to forget about whatever you were dealt in life that you wish you weren’t, and instead build for yourself the life you’d prefer, like Dad did recently.
  • You’ll make some mistakes along the way, but it’s never too late to go back and make things right.

As I get ready to become a parent myself in a month or so, I think the most important lesson I’ll carry with me is this: no matter how awkward or embarrassing, always be there, and be yourself. Climb into that crib.

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14 Responses to my dad

  1. Kelly says:

    I am very sorry for your loss Alex. You wrote a lovely reading to be very proud of. I hope you are finding much comfort in family & friends. *hug*

  2. Jeanne says:

    He was, and would be, proud.

  3. Becky says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. Your tribute is beautiful. I hope you find comfort and peace in this tough time.

  4. Daniela says:

    Oh, Alex, I am so very sorry to hear of your Dad’s passing! And what a beautiful tribute you wrote. I am sure he was extremely proud of you. What a shame he didn’t get a chance to meet his grandson and visit you in Benin. May he rest in peace!

  5. Kristen says:

    I am so sorry to hear of your loss. What a touching piece you wrote. I too hope for peace and comfort for you and Andy and your family.

  6. Bridget says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Alex.

  7. Terri says:

    Alex I am soooo sorry for your loss. You have a huge family and friend support system…lean on them during this time. Sending you hugs girl!….

  8. Karen K says:

    Alex, I am sorry to hear about your dad. I sat here and cried as I read your writings. Not because I KNEW your dad and feel the loss I know you feel. But because I am so honored to know you. I miss you — and your mom — and would love to think that we could “pick up” sometime. But I also am realistic enough to know all of our lives are very busy, that we have all moved on. Just know that, today at least, I am thinking of you and, as I have so many times before in your loooong life, prayed for you today. With much love. (BTW, I still have at least 2 treasures from you: A smiley face made from a paper plate, and an ALARM CLOCK!)

  9. Eve says:

    Alex- this was such a beautifully written and poignant post. I hope you find peace in the promise and potential of your big round belly. Much love to you and your family.

  10. Persia says:

    Oh, Alex! This was a beautiful eulogy to your father. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. God bless you and your family.

  11. Amy says:

    I am so sorry to hear about your father. Your stories about him and your childhood made me smile though. Looks like you loved him very much.

  12. Stmemory says:

    That’s a beautiful tribute and paints such an honest and loving picture. I hope you and your family find peace during this difficult time.

  13. Jen says:

    I’m so sorry to read about your loss, but absolutely loved what you wrote. Thinking of you!

  14. Denise says:

    I saw your post through a friend and felt so much for you. We are also a FS family abroad, and I too lost not one, but both of my parents far too early. I’m so so sorry for your loss and the pain that you are going through. Our daughters are now 5 and 1, both missing the luxury of their grandparents. But as you too will do, we teach them the love that was their grandparents… but it still isn’t fair 🙁 Life sometimes throws us big fat lemons. If you ever have a down day that a read will help you through, pls visit my blog and know you aren’t going it alone. Wishing you busy days and a beautiful new baby to help heal your heart. Thinking of you.

    P.S.- I too am from the STL area, and White Castles can classify as breakfast 😉

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