My father died on Thanksgiving Day. He had just turned 81, and after 80 healthy years, he had spent the last seven months of his life battling pancreatic cancer. We’ve spent the last four months or so trying to pick up the pieces. This past weekend we paid tribute to my Dad, traveling to Ohio to celebrate his life with family and friends. When it was my turn to share, this is more or less what I said:
When I started teaching fourth grade about five or six years ago, I had to teach students how to write five paragraph essays. The curriculum guide suggested writing a model essay with the claim: “My Father is one of my most important teachers.” At the time, I kind of shrugged and thought, well, I can work with that. But year after year, as I thought about this claim and searched for reasons and evidence and wrote about it, I came to realize that my father had taught me more than I had ever imagined.
First, Dad taught me to think of others. He was unfailingly polite and could be quite a charmer. He enjoyed chatting with people. More than once when I was wandering around talking to medical personnel, trying to track down some random schedule detail or information, the person helping me, upon hearing my dad’s name, would say, “Oh, I remember your Dad! Tell him I’m thinking about him. He’s such a nice guy.” In a word (or two), he was ever affable and gracious, and everyone enjoyed interacting with him.
Dad also taught me to work hard and to get through tough times. Whether it was professionally or personally, Dad didn’t shirk. He reinvented his professional life multiple times, rising above some big challenges. He didn’t moan or groan about it, he just got done what needed to be done. Only as an adult could I begin to appreciate how challenging some of those times must have been. On a lighter note, I also distinctly remember him out mowing the lawn at our home in Pittsburgh, even though his allergies always kicked into gear. He would repeatedly stop to pull out his ubiquitous handkerchief and blow his nose. Then start mowing again. Stop. Blow. Mow. Stop. Blow. Mow. Getting the job done. Meanwhile, I was often cooking him a cake in my Easy Bake oven. Now that’s a memory that still makes me smile.
Above all, Dad taught me the power of a well-played word. He had a great vocabulary and a wonderful sense of humor. He enjoyed using his wit to come up with the perfectly timed quip to make people laugh. He was quick and often quite funny. He had such a marvelous twinkle in his eye when he delivered punch lines or slipped in the perfect jest. He loved using interesting words and finding just the precise word to say what he meant. For example, Dad often reminded me that my face was dolichocephalic. (dolly-co-cephalic) You can look that up. (Believe it or not, somehow that one came up in conversation more than one might imagine. )
Dad was also a terrific punster. One fond childhood memory I have was of taking road trips, usually to visit our grandparents in Ligonier, and asking him to tell the story of “Falling Rock” . Dad had concocted quite a tale for our enjoyment about how Falling Rock was a young Indian boy who had strayed from his tribe. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember begging for the story. And I remember it ended something like, “And that’s why to this very day you still see signs that say “Watch for Falling Rock.”
Over the last year, Dad taught me so much more. He taught me how to handle the worst of situations with dignity, grace and humor. Over and over again when things were tough, he made the best of it. Throughout everything, he kept his sense of humor and dry wit at hand.
Toward the end of his life, he was talking with my niece on the telephone. She said, “So Grandpa, how are you handling everything.”
Dad, now restricted to the hospital bed in his bedroom, paused, and then replied to her, succinctly and true to form, “With style.”
One of my most treasured memories is of Dad and me sitting together this past fall, writing limericks. When writing limericks, Dad always included the name of a city and he was bold in his choices (I mean who tries to rhyme with Cincinnati!?). He also didn’t let rhythm and complete rhyme hold him back. So, it seemed only fitting to include a limerick today—and in honor of Dad, I’m including a city name and taking a little bit of license with the rhyming.
There once was a man from Aurora
who was a bold verbal explorer
Though not always loquacious
he was ever sagacious
And without him our lives are much poorer
Not long before Dad died, I told him about writing essays about him with my fourth grade students. I told him how I’d come to realize how much I’d learned from him. I shared all my reasons and examples and finally I thanked him.
Dad listened while I talked, and after I finished, he looked at me and said, in his typical, understated way, “Well, Molly, I never knew I taught you all that.”
Well, you did, Dad, you did.