Monday, April 6, 2009

When Dads Die

My dad died yesterday. Just slipped away. There are no words to convey the loss. He has been in my life for all of my life. Until now. So, how can I believe he's in a "better place" when his place is here with his family? How can I believe "God" has required he "come home" when his home is with his family? How can I believe his not being here is better than him being here?

I cannot.

My father taught by example. His integrity was sacrosanct. He was honest to a fault (e.g., My mom would often say he couldn't even schmooze to get ahead). He was hard working, often working three jobs. His love for his family was unconditional. He believed in human beings, that all human beings regardless of gender or race or creed are our brothers and sisters and should be treated with respect. Having been a teacher "back in the day" when teachers made so very little money, he rarely had anything more than change in his pocket. But, should one of his kids be with him, he'd spend every last cent on them. And, we had six kids in our family. That may seem like a huge family now. But for him, he came from a poor immigrant family with 15 children, some of whom were adopted, for when a local child had no one else to turn my father's parents would take them in and treat them as one of their own. He was the youngest. He was a great athlete, "hard-nosed," a golden gloves boxer, ran track, played baseball, but football was always his first love. His football prowess earned him a spot on the Syracuse University football team and he was a standout quarterback. He coached football for most of his life. He always maintained that football IS life. And, for those who've played the game, you understand perfectly what that means. What you learn about football is that no matter how good you are, you're going to get knocked down. Football is a violent sport; not merely contact but collision. Sometimes you get hit so hard you can't imagine getting up. But if you've learned well, you do get up. For football is family and you have a responsibility to your team mates, your school, yourself. I remember well the holidays when he would have team members that had difficult family circumstances over for Thanksgiving dinner or at Christmas time. Didn't matter if they were (per his favorite saying) "black or white or polka dot for that matter" they would come and join our family festivities. He would always make himself available to any of his football "kids" whenever they had a problem at school or at home and would do whatever he could to intervene and alleviate the problem. What came through loud and clear was that whether you were a first team starter or third team bench sitter, if when knocked down you got right back up and gave it all you had, he loved you for it and respected you for never giving up.

His dedication was total. I remember watching "game films" for hours every Sunday morning. Every play run 22 times in order to watch each and every position on both sides of the ball. He would instruct me as to technique (blocking, tackling, ball carrying, ball handling, receiver routes, etc) and discuss each player's responsibility for every play. He always stayed a student of the game; always learning, studying and attempting innovation for better results. He was very successful. He had a number of chances to actually move to the college ranks but due to the very poor salaries (even worse than a high school teacher!) and having a substantial family he never could pursue that dream; another sacrifice he willingly made for his family. I suppose some people thought he had underachieved by not coaching at the college level. But, having lived through the depression, having come from such a large, poor family he achieved quite a lot and all he ever really wanted: A loving family and home of his own. Besides, what other people thought of him never phased him one iota.

My dad was a compassionate human being. A hero, really, in that he set such a fine example not by simply talking the talk but by walking the walk. He would often say how he's lived his life in such a fashion that every night he puts his head on the pillow he falls asleep without any problem; meaning he was guilt-free for living true to his ideals. He always walked with head held high—not out of arrogance, but rather, confidence in his equality –even as he was always humble and courteous.

He made me who I am. Just as he made my sisters and brothers the people they are. And who are we? What kind of people? The kind that will step between a bully and victim, that will share what little we might have with someone less fortunate, that will work on behalf of people with needs rather than our wants, that will maintain our integrity in the face of adversity, that will live by truth and serve justice, that will speak our minds regardless of who approves and believe as we see fit rather than according to custom or scripture or any other box that people tend to imprison themselves in, and most important of all, we are people that get back up when knocked down ready to give it our all.

So many people today seem to have issues with their parents, with how they were treated or how their parents didn't this or did that or whatever, never once embracing the single reality of parents being people. Parents aren't gods. But, the lucky among us realize this fact. The luckier among us are those that had loving human beings for parents; had a dad like mine.

This loss is forever. Never to be replaced or repaired or forgotten. But, every day of my life has been and will remain a reaffirmation of the righteous life-lessons taught by my father. For I will live as he taught me to live, as a compassionate human being with unbowed head.

Thank you, dad.

All my love and respect.

Son Steven