My dad died on December 17, 2019. Like a quilt, quotidian memories of him are fragmented and discrete, with each remembrance resting on the next to form a colorful patchwork of personal history that gives me comfort.
Cognizant of the qualities of the multitude of famous African Americans that will populate the airwaves for 29 days, I struggle to put into words the exquisite simplicity of his greatness. He, like the African American heroes that we hear so much about this month, was an advocate for others. But more importantly, he was just a very nice man.
A friend recently called me relentless. I’m not sure she meant it as a compliment, but my heart filled with pride at the association. My dad once said, “You make yourself happy, you make yourself sad.” My mom and I mocked him for years, of course, but he lived by that credo. He was unfailingly upbeat, focusing on life’s joys, or willing them into existence, always with the aid of a smile or a corny joke. In his typical, mild mannered way, he was relentless about maintaining that same protective bubble for his loved ones. In elementary school, he heard that an older boy was bullying his sister. He found him, turned him upside down, and holding him by his ankles, shook him until he agreed to never do it again and to apologize. A dedicated academic and talented athlete, my dad was a high school basketball and football star, relentless in the pursuit of his studies, drafted by National League football despite lacking the support from his religious parents who never attended college or his games.
My dad was also relentless in his support of my mom and me. In the 70s, after my mom arrived to an in person interview as a formality, for a job that she had been awarded verbally by phone, and was denied entry to the building because she was black, my dad softened the hurt with encouraging words, and handled child care responsibilities so that she could start her own healthcare consulting business.
My learning how to drive was a nightmare for all involved. My parents had optimistically bought me a little yellow Subaru, in anticipation of the day they would be freed from the drudgery of driving me from one suburb to another. After a few attempts at lessons with my mom (it was after a rough start of the second outing, I think, with the clutch not engaging, and the car lurching forward, that lead her to leap out of the car, running toward the house yelling, “Oh NO! I am too young to die this way!” and locking herself in the house) that my dad took over. Every day (or so it seemed) we went out for our lessons, and each time (this I remember) we came back not speaking. Perhaps spurred by the regular lack of progress, he went to the local DMV and followed one of the instructors on their route. That route became our new driving routine until I could execute it flawlessly. I passed the test (although my quick and confident turn into the parking space at the end of the test nearly got me failed) and still remember his face beaming with pride. No mention of my ineptness ever passed his lips.
In a note of condolence, my college roommate reminded me of the solace we took in the chocolate chip cookies he would bake and send to us, part of the care packages that he was so generous with. My husband, who passed many hours watching sports and eating cinnamon rolls with my dad from the comfort of the family room couch, recalls how much he enjoyed spending time with him. He saw the silver lining of my dad’s failing memory. “Every moment was like a new day to him. He was so filled with wonder. It made me appreciate the little things in life too.”
Oh, how I miss him and his relentless thoughtfulness and positivity.