“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” ― Umberto Eco
A few years back my friend Lybby invited me and my parents to come stay with her at her family’s condo in Kona, Hawaii. And even through budget cuts meant she had to let the palm fanning cabana boys go, her place was still, pretty much paradise. The condo was surrounded by the lush foliage of island plants. Fragrant pink plumeria petals dripped from the trees, and it felt like there was a view from every window, including the closet. Just off the dining room was a smooth cement patio that led directly to the sea. I could sit there forever, condensation beading on my water glass, watching the foamy surf crash into the hunks of jagged lava rocks lining the shore like broken pieces of dark chocolate.
I never did adjust to the time change, and after an especially sleepless night, I got up before dawn to walk along the edge of the rocky cliffs and watch the sun rise. I padded along the worn path, the salty tang of untainted fresh air cooling even my most fevered thoughts.
I stopped walking long enough to pull my iPhone from my pocket so I could take a picture, training my eyes on the flushed pale streaks of light barely illuminating the sky. The orange, yellows and pinks slowly bleeding into the milky horizon like streams of running food coloring.
Then, up in the distance, movement caught my eye. I shifted my gaze to where my father was quietly slipping from the condo, and making his way into the panting calm of dawn. I called out to him, but the wind swallowed my words, and I had traveled far enough up the curving path to be too hard to be seen. I watched him from across an enclave of restless waves as he made his way to a picnic table. Siting down, he took off his baseball cap and bowed his head to offer a prayer.
The beauty the silhouette of my father made as he bent as humble as a pauper, deeply moved me. Especially when I considered how my dad didn’t even know I was awake, let alone watching him. He never knew I would be a witness to his unabashed reverence. He was just living his life the way he always did. With or without an audience, my father is a man who lives each day with integrity and honor.
Studying him in the predawn dark, reminded me of the long ago winter mornings of my childhood. Mornings when I’d stumble up the stairs from the cold of my basement bedroom still weak with sleep. I’d climb dragging a blanket behind me, knowing I’d find my dad in the same place I always found him on cold mornings. He’d be kneeling in front of the fireplace, steadily blowing new life into the beginning sparks of a flickering flame. He’d coax and encourage the smoldering kindling until a fire caught, bright and popping.
And then, last summer, my son Alex and I spent the day following my brother Jake around as he made last minute preparations for a family trip to Kentucky. Jake was christening his new RV by taking it on a 24 hour one way road trip with four kids, one wife, one dog, one bathroom and 7898 snacks. “Some people just go up the road and camp overnight.” I said. “I’m not most people.” Jake answered.
Watching Jake prepare for his trip, made me think of all the trips I used to watch my dad get us ready for, remembering the time my dad had unzipped all our sleeping bags and layered them one on top of another over the back bench seat of our golden Plymouth Duster. I remember climbing in the backseat with two of my brothers, and marveling how the accumulation of padding had raised up enough to see out the window. The ride to the campground felt like I was floating on a soft patch of clouds.
Jake had carried his bare foot four year old to the RV, not fretting like a mother that his shirt was dirty and his hair needed combing. He grabbed his son laughing, throwing him high while singing “lets go empty the crapper” to the tune of an old ad that used to play before the movie started; a dancing soda bottle holding hands with a dancing cup of popcorn, singing,“Lets all go to the lobby, lets all go to the lobby lets all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat!”
He strapped Simon into his spot and walked to his drivers seat telling us to buckle up, that had a poop hose to aim and fire. The boys cheered unanimously. But backing out of the driveway, Jake saw a lady from next door struggling to drag a mattress to a donation pile by herself. He slammed on the brakes, yelling to his sons “Sam! Issac! Hurry up and go help her move that bed!” Sam lept out the front door of the RV, with Issac following close behind. They raced to her aide while Jake supervised from the front seat, calling out helpful advice like, “Don’t trip over the garden hose!”
Simon, frustrated whined, “But dad! I don’t want to stop! I want to shoot the poop hose!!” I watched Jake’s reflection as he looked at Simon in the rear view mirror and said, “Well Simon, we stopped because jobs like emptying the crapper, have to wait for more important jobs like helping our neighbor.”
The ripple effects of a good father’s example, has both physically and emotionally moved me. Lulled me into a steady pattern of progress, kept me bobbing along on ever widening rings of influence. And in truth, even when I’m miles and miles away for him, the steady tug of my father’s example still pulls me like the tide.
I am a 47 year old mother of three boys, two of whom ride the tumultuous wave of the autism spectrum. A wave that some days feels like a tsunami. I have learned to stand nearby, towel in hand, waiting to dry them off after a wipe out. I have also learned to make sure the towel is not too scratchy or anything with a loud offensive pattern like bright pink flamingos, because who would EVER let themselves be dried off by something like that?
I used to think that being a mother to children who struggle with their scuba certification, and can’t stay on a surf board to save themselves, made my parenting journey unique. But I know now I am no different than any other committed mother or father. We all find ourselves underwater from time to time, each of us struggling at different depths.
It’s exhausting to be a parent. Your muscles cramp from endlessly treading the murky water of responsibility. Shoulders aching from the constant rescuing of children who keep testing the water.
Again. And again. And again.
While you hold your tongue to keep from yelling, The freaking water hasn’t changed in the last seven minutes! Quit testing it!
I know now what I never knew when I was a child; that the work of raising children is steady, tedious, grinding. And while I never witnessed it growing up, I’m certain my father, like me, like all of us, had moments when all he wanted to do was drift away from the chaos of the reef and let the wind decide his direction. Especially once he realized that raising my four spirited brothers and I, was going to be more like sailing on The Titanic than The Love Boat.
And this is why a good parent, a good father, is all the more impressive to me, because it is is so hard. Fathers who accept the job whole heartedly become captains over their vessels. And oh how our children need good stewards. Men who keep track of their crew, teaching them how to steer through storms and take care of a ship. Men who care about the hearts of each sailor, as well as the hearts of wanna be pirates and stow aways. Men who never stop scanning the horizon for signs of a sailor in distress.
My father is a man like this. He has never stopped swimming, and because I’ve watched him stay afloat, I know I can do it too. Now don’t get me wrong, I know fathers are fallible, that like mothers they may be rescuing the same child they threw overboard a few minutes earlier. Still, my father’s tireless example has helped me learn when I need to fight the waves and when I need to allow the swells to move me. He’s taught me it’s not cowardly to come up for air. And helped me understand that on days when the ocean tastes as salty as tears, days when I am underwater, flailing beneath the surface. That I have to look up, and when I do, a lifeguard will be waiting to pull me to safety.
My dad is a simple leader, a man more comfortable in worn out swim trunks (so his kids can wear new ones) and tennis shoes, dark socks pulled halfway up his calves. Then dressed in the full navy regalya of an admiral. He says less and does more, and set an example for me and my brothers that was easy to understand and follow. My dad taught me how to lead others by the way he led himself.
And so this Father’s Day, I want to say thank you to the men who weather storms without flinching. Men who cradle their children heads the same way my dad cradled mine when he was teaching me how to float. I had flailed in the water at first, panicked, overthinking, sinking. Until I looked up, saw my father’s steadying gaze, heard him say, “Relax. I’ve got you.” And then I begin to rise.
“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” – Albert Einstein