One of my greatest and most favorite teachers was my father. His passing, eight years ago, oddly coincides with the last few days of my school year and Father’s Day, so when the buzz of summer camp and cookouts start, it’s impossible not to think of, and sorely miss, my beautiful dad. His yahrzeit was last Shabbat.
Each June, my students are just finishing “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it’s these weeks we talk about all the fathers we’ve met in ninth grade English class this year, including, of course, Atticus Finch, the most stand-up dad to ever grace the pages of American Lit. I can’t help but think of my own father when, in the last moments of the film version of Harper Lee’s classic, we see Atticus rocking his daughter Scout on their front porch. It brings back to me so vividly the ease with which my dad held me, too, when the world didn’t make sense suddenly, or I scraped my knee, or I just needed a tight hug.
When I was little, my dad took a job as an adjunct at a local college. I thought Accounting and Business Systems sounded like the most boring subject in the universe, but I couldn’t have been more proud that my dad was a teacher, and I came to appreciate his crazy knack for numbers. He taught every Monday evening for over 30 years, until the winter before he passed. When I became a teacher, too, we could whine together about grading, students who asked for free passes, and stupid excuses for missing homework. His students loved him. He was funny, fair, and knew when to change it up: This defined him.
My dad died of pancreatic cancer. He was 61. He was young, vibrant, handsome, still had lots of black hair and great teeth, and biked on trails. When I think about the months leading up to June 14, about the sheer hell of watching my parents, crazy in love and not ready to let go of each other, I realize how that time was both manic and reflective: the torture of feeling helpless and worrying that we wouldn’t get the chance to say everything, speak everything, do everything we hadn’t yet. At the time, my husband and I desperately wanted to get pregnant—we’d been married less than a year and were in our mid-30s—and I so wanted our child to meet its grandfather, or as he was called by my niece, Saba.
With the news of our pregnancy, my dad, weak but well enough to stand, put his hands on my face and said, “Usually I know when someone is pregnant, honey. This is not your baby.” He was right. I miscarried two weeks later.
I hate thinking about this manic time, because I can see again, all too clearly, the things I don’t want to see: the facts of dying, the pain of loss on top of loss.
When I think about what my dad taught my brother and me, and anyone who knew him and loved him, it helps to bring me out of the dark memories of his last days and focus on how he lived his life. My brother and I agree that of our many favorites are these top ten:
1. Treat everyone, regardless of who they are, with respect. My dad was infamous for his conversations with strangers on airplanes, restaurant staff, the man changing the oil in his car, the garbage collector. You can find a thread of humanity with absolutely everyone and put anyone at ease with a joke, a smile, a nudge, and a wink.
2. Don’t ever stop exploring. Dad saw traveling to new places as opportunities to learn something: about geography, culture, people, trivia—this was probably his in-road to speaking with complete strangers.
3. Just DANCE. One of my most vivid memories is my dad showing me how to DO THE LOCOMOTION when I was having a horrible, teen-angsty stand-off with my closet (and body image). C’mon!, he said over Kylie Minogue’s sugary vocals. I only realized as a parent that dancing with your kids is one of the joys of life that never gets old.
4. Never miss an opportunity to tell the people you love that you love them. And squeeze them. And forgive them. And when you’re wrong, admit it.
5. Never force anyone to make a bad decision, and don’t be talked into one.
6. It’s OK to give second chances. If you can’t settle differences over a drink, it’s time to move on.
7. Speak up, unless it’s your turn to listen.
8. Always be the first one to offer to pay at a restaurant.
9. Yelling usually won’t improve a situation. A lot of us parents learn this the hard way.
The moment came which we had dreaded and welcomed as the end of a long, brutal battle. My husband, brother, sister-in-law, their baby girl, and my mother gathered around his bed. Each of us finally said our goodbyes, and to each of us, my father whispered as best he could his parting words. To me, he whispered that he couldn’t wait to meet our baby as they crossed paths in heaven. “Don’t worry,” he smiled. “You’re going to be a parent soon.” (He was right again.)
After an exhausting shiva, my mother went outside to look for a sign that Dad had made his journey to the other side alright. Anyone who was present can attest that at that very moment, a glorious, full rainbow appeared. It was Dad’s parting lesson:
10. Always keep your chin up. You don’t want to miss a thing.