I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day a lot lately. I know most folks are thinking about that this week, too, but I’m thinking about a particular Mother’s Day, 14 years ago, when a doctor told me that my father was dying of leukemia.
I just felt a collective eye-roll as you read that last sentence. Stay with me, I promise this post will not be bleak in spite of its ominous beginning. You see, anything I write about my father will inevitably be joyful because he was the most optimistic person ever put on the face of this earth.
Seriously, he made Mr. Rogers look like Debbie Downer.
Don’t get me wrong – his optimism, especially when I was a sullen teenager, could make me want to smother him with a pillow. But these days I’m grateful for his hopeful spirit because it has certainly helped to sustain me in some hard times over the many years since his death in May of 2002.
My father and I didn’t have a traditional father-daughter relationship. I was never his princess and I didn’t grow up dreaming about him walking me down the aisle when I got married.
And yet he taught me some things every girl should know – how to shoot a jumper, how to crack crabs and how a roll of duct tape can fix just about anything, including the zipper on your yard-work pants.
We didn’t bond over tea parties in my playhouse or matinees at the ballet. Instead, we spent hours on the basketball court behind our house playing HORSE. Dad loved the Los Angeles Lakers and he would emulate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famous sky hook. He always did it with color commentary, too, and he could be pretty annoying.
So it was most gratifying when I was finally able to beat him once in a while, usually with an unorthodox backwards over the head shot that was awkward for his 6’ 4” frame.
My dad loved being tall and regarded it almost as a sign of social superiority. Ironically, he grew up on a farm with horses and dreamed of being a jockey one day. Yeah, that didn’t quite work out. He never got to meet my wife but I know he would be pleased that she is 5’10”.
Our most intimate time together growing up was on Sunday afternoons watching the Washington Redskins get pummeled by their opponents. Dad really enjoyed teaching me about football – the rules and strategy and most of all, predicting which play would be called next. That’s why I am often the only woman in a room who knows what a flea flicker is. And for the football uneducated, that is not a special dog collar.
I loved having his uninterrupted attention for three hours and I never thought I was weird because none of my girlfriends spent their Sundays in this way. I didn’t realize for a very long time that my father was teaching me about a lot more than football on those afternoons.
Dad was a fierce competitor whether watching or playing anything. He would stand up and cheer when the Redskins scored and he would stomp his foot and cuss a little when they made a bonehead play to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory late in a game.
He taught me a lot about loyalty. Win or lose, he still loved the Redskins and after every loss would say, “We’ll get ‘em next week, Adda.” Usually we would lose the next week, too, but his enthusiasm and support for his team never wavered. He was like that with his family and friends, too – fiercely faithful.
My father, like a lot of men from his generation, had a collection of sayings that he used over and over again. His most memorable one was, “Only cry in victory, never in defeat” and it was years before I understood that he was talking about life.
And that’s exactly how he approached some huge challenges thrown at him, including losing his larynx to cancer in his early sixties and becoming disabled the last several years of his life. The once strong and cocky athlete had to use a walker to get around and could no longer drive or play his beloved golf.
And yet he never complained about it – any of it. He would certainly get frustrated at times but would always remind himself and us that, “It could be worse.” We would tease him that we would put that epitaph on his headstone one day.
My father had a quiet but indomitable faith. He grew up poor and never took anything for granted. He loved and respected nature and was happiest being drenched in sweat after working in his garden all day. And he was almost always happy.
When I was younger, I thought he was a simple man – certainly not stupid but limited in his vision of the world around him. I had to go through some difficult challenges of my own to understand that he chose to focus on what was most important to him in life and let the rest of it go. I honestly don’t think he wasted much time worrying about what he didn’t have.
He chose optimism over cynicism, sweet over bitter, and those choices have consciously and unconsciously informed many of my own choices since his death.
Sometimes it feels like he’s still sitting there beside me on the couch lifting my spirits after another disappointment. I thought about him a lot when I lost my job in January. I know his first reaction would have been to want to punch out the noxious manipulator that staged my demise but then he would have said, “Keep your chin up” and told me to remember all the good things in my life.
Oh, and then he would have told me to check my oil. He always told me to check my oil.
Damn his optimism. I can’t shake it and that’s why when a doctor told me my father was dying on that Mother’s Day so long ago, I did not cry in defeat. I knew he had lived a life far beyond his dreams, a happy life that even death could not diminish.
I cried in victory because on my very best days, I am my father’s daughter.