At 45, I thought I had already learned everything I could from my father. I was wrong. I was just beginning to learn the greatest lesson he would ever teach me.
Frequent moves (9 schools in 12 years) were the only way of life we knew as a Catholic military family. Even in the swirling winds of cultural change brought about in the 60’s and 70’s with Vatican II, the sex revolution, the Cold War, and anti-war protests, we did enjoy some sense of stability.
Mom was a convert. Not an obnoxious convert, but she was a devout Catholic. I think she would have been devout no matter where the arrow on the wheel-of-faith would have stopped for her. Dad, on the other hand, was a mechanically pious Catholic. He was about the rules laid out in the Parish Bulletin (“Don’t worry about the Bible”), and Mass and catechism. We didn’t talk about faith; we just did (generally) what we were told. It would be many years later that I would come to understand the rigors of his Catholic thinking went far beyond transubstantiation and fish on Fridays. His clinging to Catholicism is what kept him sane.
Dad was an only child, adopted at birth by Catholic Irish alcoholics. His father would leave for work in the morning and, sometimes, not return for days or even weeks after an extended bender. Returning from school in the afternoons, if Dad saw the drapes were still drawn across the front windows, he knew he was on his own for dinner, as his mother was probably passed out drunk. It is nothing short of Divine Intervention which landed him a Congressional Appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952.
My father has always been a stickler on education and hard work. “I’m not as smart as other people so I have to work harder” and “You just have to buck up and put your nose to the grindstone!” were common mantras. We were paid for grades, and often given books to read to cover important life issues.
When I was in the third grade, Dad gave me my first book. While standing in the driveway of our home in Navy Housing, I found it necessary to “give the finger” to a play mate. While I didn’t know what message I was conveying, I most certainly did not know my Mother could see this ‘communication’ through the screen door to the kitchen. I was immediately ‘restricted’ to my room. When dad came home that evening, I had been anticipating the Queen Mother of all spankings. Instead, he walked into my bedroom, handed me the book, “Where do Babies Come From”, and said “read this and let me know if you have any questions.” This assignment would serve as our Father-Son ‘sex’ talk, the personal fear of that afternoon evolved into years of personal confusion.
In High School, “Catcher in the Rye” and “Slaughterhouse 5” were passed on, presumably for some other life lesson. In my late 30’s, he sent a copy of “Blind Mans Bluff”, a book detailing the history of intelligence gathering in the submarine force. The note on the shipping slip from Amazon.com read, “This is what I was doing while you were growing up.”
It was not until my mother’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer did I begin to learn from Dad about love. The uncertainty of mom’s prognosis was only dwarfed by my uncertainty of Dad’s care-giving abilities. There are no rules for the heart; there is no book on how to care for a loved one in that space between diagnosis and Hospice. At 45 years old, I would begin to learn, by his example, how a man is supposed to love.
Dad had no other war to fight, no other place to be. Piously, he cooked, cleaned, dispensed meds, ran errands, and studied the disease and prescribed regimens. One oncologist remarked to me, “When your Dad comes in for an appointment, I have to prepare like I’m back in Med school again!”. He memorized every side-effect of every medication prescribed.
It wasn’t his brain or tolerance of emotional pain that carried the day. It was his heart. While there was a past to lean on, and a future to hope on, it was the unmitigated attention he showed each moment, each day, that taught me about love. He held her hand. He made her meals. He let her rant. He prayed. He rubbed her feet. I would see a glimpse of why Mom loved this man. He was simply selfless.
And when the options were gone, and her choice was, “to be done”, he held her and said, “I love you. “ One last time, she managed a smile and said “Love you too.”