Bits and Pieces
Father knows best about really living each day
As Mr. Langley, my grocer in Pomona, used to say to me, "You are always a day late and a dollar short." With this character flaw in mind, I am choosing to write about Father's Day even though it is after the fact.
As I sit here musing about fathers I have known and what I might add about fatherhood that has not already been said so often by so many, I remember my own father. I have mentioned him often in this column, and what comes to my mind now as I think of Father's Day are the small things he did for me as a child, through my teenage years, and into adulthood. Life changed for me dramatically when he became ill and died an early death from cancer in January 1972, shortly after my family and I moved to Eudora.
Our family doctor in Emporia did not have the heart to tell Dad or anyone in our family that he had cancer. I will never forget the day I took Dad to Topeka to visit yet another doctor for a second opinion. The doctor was kind, and I could see that he wasn't eager to give us this alarming news, either. He did tell us that the cancer was slow-growing and that there were things that could be done, even though the cancer was already metastasized.
It seemed unfair that such an insidious disease should occur in someone who had led a life that was a quiet example for others. He never complained, and he never mentioned that he knew his illness was terminal. He continued working and enjoying each day as it came until the cancer finally took him.
I have many wonderful memories of Dad. He was the one who spoiled my brother and me. He was not well off financially, but he always managed to buy my brother the BB gun or me the birthstone ring I wanted for Christmas. He also was the one to comfort me in the night when I had the usual stomach aches and ear aches. He filled the hot water bottle and sat by my bed until I fell asleep. He often carried me on his shoulders several blocks to get ice cream after he had already walked to and from work twice in a day.
During my teenage years, the high school I attended was only a half a block away from the Broadview Hotel, where he was a chef for 35 years. Sometimes I would walk over to his kitchen during my lunch hour, and he would make me a hamburger even though he thought hamburgers were the scourge of the food industry. I also remember him taking me to the gift shop and fountain in the Broadview when I was very small to buy me a Coke and let me wander around touching all the beautiful gifts and glistening packages of Russell Stover candy.
He loved my visits to his kitchen and was always proud to tell everyone from the hotel manager to the pastry chef to the bellboys and the waitresses, just what wonderful things I was up to at the time.
The day I spoke at the local Lion's Club luncheon about my adventures at Girls State (they had sponsored me), he ducked in to hear my speech, his tall chef's hat gleaming white in the dim room. He was so proud when I won a full scholarship from the American Cancer Society to attend nurse's training. He never showed his disappointment when after several months I refused the scholarship in favor of marriage.
He created a wonderful dinner for my girlfriends and myself to celebrate our eighth-grade graduation, and he repeated it years later when I celebrated my marriage.
My dog ran away after I left home, and Dad rode the bus to the corners of Emporia, getting off and calling the dog's name over and over, hoping that he might find and keep that last connection to me left to my mother and him after I moved away.
He was a very generous person, and to anyone in need he was a godsend. The master of small gifts, he was always shaking his wallet for change for his grandchildren. I remember thinking once that it was not possible for a parent to love his grandchildren more than he loved his children, but I believe my father did. He chose to share what he had with his friends as well as his family.
At the Broadview he was a favorite. When he was very ill, his boss and the owner of the hotel came to visit, and I remember the tears he shed seeing Dad in such a devastated condition.
My last memory of my father is of him sitting up in a hospital bed in St. Mary's hospital in Emporia, the same hospital where I was born as well as one of my sons and where my grandmother preceded my father in death two weeks earlier. He was watching a football game and smoking a cigar, even though his body was so emaciated it hardly lifted the covers. He was very strict about me driving back to see him, as it was winter and the roads were often icy. He told me not to come back, saying he was just fine. One week later, I did return to watch him breathe his last on a cold, clear January day.
I think the death of my father was really the beginning of my own life when I began to treasure the same small gifts of living that added up to the life he lived so well and so quietly.
Anna Quindlen, whose mother also died of cancer at an early age, wrote a book called "A Short Guide to a Happy Life." She learned to notice the small gifts of life after her mother's death as well. Several quotes from her book mirror what my father taught me about life.
She says, "Knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us, because unless you know the clock is ticking, it is so easy to waste our days, our lives."
Dad didn't waste a minute teaching me to "love the journey, not the destination," as Quinden continues. That's the profound gift my father gave me -- to not waste a moment of this precious time we have been given and to rejoice in the gift of each day.