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.
- 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.