Most kids have a long list of things their fathers taught them. “My dad taught me to play ball”, or “my dad taught me to ride a bike”, or “my dad taught me to drive”, things like that.
My dad didn’t teach me to play ball. He probably taught me to ride a bike, although I can’t remember him doing so. I didn't even remember that he could ride until a few months ago, when he asked me to print out a picture of him with his first bicycle. He certainly didn’t teach me to drive. One hour of careening down the country road beyond the golf course ended those lessons. I almost drove us into a ditch, and he said, “I think that’s about enough for today, honey. I’ll drive us home.” My mom subsequently taught me to drive.
My dad taught me different things. When I was very young, maybe seven years old, he taught me to play gin. We’d sit at the kitchen table and play for hours. He didn’t teach me how to win. He let me learn that on my own. It takes a special kind of man to look fondly across the table at his youngest child, staring back at him over a fan of cards barely contained in her tiny hands, trying so hard not to give away that she's one card away from ginning. A special kind of man to then put his discard face down on the pile and say, “Sorry, honey, but I’m going to have to go with three.”
Everything I learned from him was by example, by watching him and emulating him. I make sure that I put stamps on envelopes just so, perfectly lined up at both corner edges, because that’s how he did it. He taught me to whistle, which I can do beautifully, although I never could get the trill down right. I learned to love the Giants, through the few good years and the innumerable bad. I watched him and I learned what it meant to be loyal.
I’m trying, although I suspect that I’ll never be as good, to be the kind of listener, the kind of conversationalist that he was. My dad could listen to an argument for an hour, listen and think about what everyone had said, and then ease his way in and say the perfect thing to end it. He had a calm thoughtfulness about him. I didn't always agree with him, but I always respected his opinions because I knew he'd deliberated over them so thoroughly.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table many years ago, crying. I was in a real funk, and he was trying to figure out how to help me. I finally got up the strength to tell him what was wrong – that I didn’t understand how everyone in the world didn’t spend all of their time thinking about how someday they were going to die, how unfair it was that the crushing burden of this knowledge was reserved for the deep thinkers, like twenty-year-old me. I ended my lament with, “But you know, right? You’re OLD! How do you keep going, knowing that someday you’ll just be GONE?”
My dad folded his hands on the table and stared at them for a minute, deep in thought. He took a measured breath and said, “Well, I think that if I affect other people, that I do good things and make them think that they’re happy to know me, then that’s my legacy. That’s the part of me that’s still here. If I can do that, I’m not gone.”
It’s the most important thing I learned from him.
My dad died a little after noon on January 24th, 2008. He was ninety years and sixteen days old.