I wrote one of my college admissions essays about my father. It was one of my few attempts at semi-creative writing before I graduated, since I had been dealt the math/science geek card while my sister drew the one for language and communication. My father was, is, and always has been a huge influence in my life. The first things I learned, I learned from him, and to this day I am still learning about myself during and especially after our interactions, even if the focus has shifted from direct instruction to observation and analysis.
My father worked tremendously hard when I was young. He routinely spent all night on call at the hospital, sacrificing his sleep and time with his family to ensure the health of premature babies in the NICU. Some of my favorite memories of my dad are his one liners. He frequently told others that he chose Neonatology because he didn't like talking to patients, so he picked a specialty where the patient would never be able to speak. Of course, in the NICU, there is a lot of necessary interaction with parents. Some of those parents are not emotionally or intellectually capable of understanding what a physician is tasked with explaining. Hence the joke, or perhaps more aptly called a half truth, about the peace he felt looking into an incubator with a precious and usually quiet new life inside, struggling to survive its untimely eviction from the womb. Providing the basic needs of a 30 week infant, airway, breathing, circulation is the definition of living in the present. There is no future and no past to a preemie, only the simple desire to suck one more breath, for the heart to beat one more time. As a by product of this world, my father is very efficient at barking orders and perhaps slightly less adept at prefacing his instructions with pleasantries. NICU nurses have to develop thick skin to get through the inevitable loses and time spent on formality is time taken away from a life which needs it. I picked up on this and it has become somewhat of my achilles as well, being too harsh and direct with my word choice, not taking into account how what I say might affect the recipient before I speak.
My father grew up in Long Island. I lived there for almost a year in 1996, over 2 decades after he left for good, and I can see how our differences stem so much from our very different childhoods. His mother, my grandmother, spoke very little English. I spent a week with her once, sometime in my early teens, and I remember being petrified about how to communicate with her. I also remember her incessant need to push food down my throat, which was a product of her own childhood where obesity indicated wealth and where family always comes first, especially the son of the son who is intentionally spoiled (or in my case, force-fed). What I remember most about Maria was how frequently she reminded me that "bad people" lurked outside the door. Her favorite phrase was "Dayne-jer, Sete" which instructed me as grandchild to be cautious, to trust nobody. If at all possible, I should avoid even going outside. She kept the windows and doors closed and locked in the middle of summer, on a quiet residential street with barely any traffic. I once borrowed a bicycle and went out to wander and it caused her great bouts of panic until I returned home where she was able to lock me inside and drag me back to the dining table. If she had owned a plastic bubble, I am certain she would have put me in it.
My grandfather was very crafty, able to navigate the world of "bad people" and "danger" as he ventured into Manhattan on the train every morning and returned home late every evening. Sacrifice, especially financial, for benefit of the family was the end goal of life for him. I went to "work" with him once, to survey and absorb his world. I watched him fall asleep on the train and wondered if his internal clock was still functional enough to keep us from winding up in New Jersey. I remember sharing a bagel with him, walking through dirty streets with purpose, and eventually being wholly unimpressed with the reality of how non-glamorous his world actually was. The 20th century provider, hustling the streets for deals, buying what would sell for a profit back in the suburbs, my grandfather navigated with purpose but without passion.
Some of my other memories of my father's one liners: "The ends justify the means" and "Pay now or pay later" are burned into my cortex to this day. As a product of his childhood, my father's approach to life is no surprise. I know his personality so well that I can predict responses in him just as he can in me. Things get accomplished by badgering and price is the almighty indicator of a deal, more so than quality or even abstract concepts like the joy inherent in the process of whatever work is being done. My grandfather wanted his only son to be a doctor or a lawyer, and my father was lucky to discover that he was well suited to the role he found himself in. Within the NICU, my father's calculated paranoia about what could go wrong served as a constructive force which undoubtedly saved many lives over the years.
I have been told that my grandmother had as many as 12 pregnancies but only 4 children survived, my father and his 3 sisters. Perhaps some part of my father's occupation makes sense only in that context, balancing out the yin and the yang of siblings who perished because of lack of access to medical care in Palestine.
There are definite times when I struggle with my relationship with my father. Even though I love him and I support him and I want complete happiness for him, we wind up frustrated by each other from time to time. I don't want to live a life without trust and even after 37 years of observation and understanding, his trust in me has clear boundaries. I accept those boundaries, I understand them given the context of his formative years, and as he drifts closer towards wearing his grumpy-old-man buckle he has earned every ounce of his right to be whoever he wants to be and live however he wants to live.
Another line I remember vividly from my childhood, words from my father's lips, "To the victor goes the spoils". Perhaps the overall theme is apparent here, my father values success as a measure of worth, because winning, earning, producing, and providing can be objectively measured. And yet, my father is not without a softness. His dancing demonstrates that to me, when I watch him flow across the floor I see a man I never knew as a child, a facet which was buried and is now blooming. He talks about how his father never really understood exactly what he did for a living, but was overjoyed by the simple math of his annual salary and how much he would have liked to have shared a deeper understanding. Perhaps because of this, my father takes a very active role in evaluating my convoluted journey through the different positions I have held in my own career, even though he doesn't have the patience to deal with a complicated technical problem in a methodical and organized fashion which is how most of my days are spent. My father wants the best for me, and he is willing to do anything he can to push me in the right direction. He most certainly has my back.
The problems (and it's a disservice to call them problems because overall I'd say my father is my #1 ally and someone in whom I place complete trust) only appear because we are two different men, born and raised in completely different environments. Our most recent interactions have been a tad extra stressful because my father's level of trust towards me is probably a fair bit lower than the level of trust I have with my postal worker. Since I am not a father, I can't evaluate how difficult it is to trust your children, to believe that they are making good decisions and that everything will be just fine for you and them if you hand over control. But I do know that I can't live a life without trust extended beyond my family. I believe my sister is the same way, and I think growing up in Hawaii, where ohana means community more than it means family, is what may have shaped both of us to be this way, just as growing up in NY shaped my father.
The reality of life is that there are Bernie Madoffs and there are Mother Theresas and then the entire spectrum in between.
My father has been burned before. I distinctly remember a painter once doing 1/4 of the work he was supposed to do for 1/2 the money and walking away, leaving a few things behind and a bad taste in my father's mouth for picking him. I too have been burned on a number of occasions, but while I think I may have learned a little from those experiences, I don't want to change, I don't want to stop trusting people as much as I can, every chance I get.
My father has a tough time with mess and clutter. I'm just as bothered by disorder and failure to follow-through as my father is, perhaps I am bothered even more so because I have all sorts of OCD tendencies that come from my mother's dna which my father only picked up by osmosis and training over the time she was alive. I live with a roommate who raises the bar when it comes to creating mess and I consider it therapeutic for me to accept all of the dirty dishes, empty coffee cups, general filth and disarray. I also distinctly remember when my x-fiance moved out how empty and sterile the house seemed until he moved in, and I value his contribution to my quality of life as a tremendous net positive despite the challenges that come with it. My father, on the other hand, would probably be tempted to question prospective residents of his home about how clean they were willing to be rather than the content and intent of their heart. It is his right to do so. And fixing stuff that other people break or cleaning up other people's messes does get old, so I certainly understand.
A few weeks ago, while driving home late at night, I came across a motorcycle on it's side in my lane. I pulled off to the shoulder and helped another man move the bike to the guard rail and walked back to check on the rider. He was in good shape, despite having to crawl across 2 lanes of the freeway to reach a safe spot to wait for the ambulance. While a group of us sat on the guard rail and contemplated this situation, I renewed my decision to keep trying to let go of the worry I bring into my own life. This unnecessary stress creeps up when I see scratches in my wood floor or a crack in a shower tile, and yet these imperfections are what cause me to take notice in the first place, to see the beauty of the grain or the precise alignment of the grout and therefore celebrate the work that was done. I remember the demolition and construction phases, the challenges involved and the process of transformation and the beautiful impact of creating new from old. The trivialities and imperfections of the physical world really do become irrelevant in the moment when we are lying on the cold pavement, facing our own mortality, and reaching for our cell phone to make our final call. I often wonder, if that had been my motorcycle, who would I have called? What would I have said?
My father is on a cruise from Lisbon which will head south along the coast and then cross the Atlantic. He will be dancing and eating and sharing time with his girlfriend, talking and thinking, writing and reading. I am currently flying over the Pacific to his house in Manoa, making my annual pilgrimage to complete the race that started all of my fascination with running. My father and mother both signed up for the Honolulu marathon, at about the age when I spent that week with my grandmother and grandfather, the beginning stages of my own self awareness. I watched their very different approaches to the race and their performances during and recovery afterwards with fascination and envy. The marathon seemed special to me because I had a front row seat to how difficult it was for my parents and how unique the experience was for each of them. These days, my father tends to relish the attention he sometimes receives from colleagues and friends when they see his name in the newspaper as one of the top local finishers and congratulate him for the accomplishment. Perhaps this is one of the few things I can give back to him in return for his decision to create me and give me the name his father gave him. So, I keep coming back each December, to relive my childhood, to reconnect with my father, and try to feel closer to my mother's spirit.
Dad, if you read this, yes I will take care of your house and yes I will be very gentle with your blinds and yes I will shut off the water to the washer when I leave and yes I will put out the recycling on Monday morning and yes I will set the alarm when I leave and yes I will turn off all the lights. You can trust me, dad. You don't have to. But you can if you want to. I have your back too.