by guest blogger Ben Lieblich
Today is the day of my father’s unveiling. We will uncover his tombstone and mark the end of the official period of mourning his death. There’s only one little problem: the cemetery operators messed up our order, and his headstone wasn’t ready on time. So when we get to his gravesite, we will see either a temporary substitute or a tombstone not yet fully installed.
For most families, this would represent a crisis. But my father delighted in irony and would have loved that his burial was commemorated with a gigantic “OOPS!” If he were telling the story to my sister and me, it would begin something like this: “Let me tell you about the strangest graveside ceremony that ever took place. You’ll never believe what they actually unveiled….” Right now, I just hope they spelled his name correctly. Actually, I kind-of hope they didn’t.
To me it seems natural that we would hold the unveiling on Father’s Day. Honoring my dad on this particular date helps me to evaluate my role as both a son and a parent through comparison to the first and best father I have ever known. If irony is the filter through which I must reflect, then here goes….
Most obviously, my father was a victim of certain cruel ironies of fate. He adored classical music. Over a lifetime of study and collecting, he amassed a library of more than 8,000 vinyl records, and he must have attended 1,000 concerts in his 74 years. But a rare condition called Meniere’s syndrome robbed him of most of his hearing. About 10 years ago, no longer able fully to enjoy his music, he tore the collection apart. The vast bulk of it is now the core of a small college’s listening library somewhere in the Midwest.
My father was a brilliant man. He graduated at the top of his class from Harvard Law School. He got bored of doing crossword puzzles, so he started making them, and he even published a Sunday puzzle for the New York Times. But, ironically, he died of brain cancer, his mind rapidly overtaken by a force more powerful than his intellect.
My father embodied ironies of character that could be understood only by family. On the positive side, he was one of the most dedicated and loving people I’ve ever known. But ironically, he never openly expressed his feelings. I don’t think I once heard him say “I love you” to anybody – not me, not my sister, not my mom – in the last 35 or 40 years of his life. But my dad had a magnificent gift of presence and patience. He was truly my mother’s partner through 10 years of her own mom’s declining health. Not many men can claim this: his mother-in-law never stopped adoring him. When my sister developed breast cancer, my father drove from Virginia to New Jersey to hold her hand through every one of her chemotherapy sessions. He was a comfort to her, although he said nary a word of support. She has started a charity in his honor to support breast cancer survivors.
My father was a great teacher by being a lousy teacher. When I was about three years old, he taught me how to play chess. A few years later, I became obsessed with the game, and at my insistence, we would play it night after night. When I was seven, I started beating him regularly.
I’m not sure why – it might have been pride – but my father never directly taught me another thing that I can remember. He coached my youth rec league basketball teams a few times, but I don’t remember him teaching me how to shoot or dribble or pass. He never taught me how to shave, how to change a lightbulb, how to light a match, or how to swim. I had to figure those things out for myself. When I reached driving age, my dad turned me over to a professional instructor. And then he gave me his car.
What could have been a handicap was actually a blessing for me. I became a person who figures things out. It’s still hard to teach me something, but I have no difficulty learning. Everything I am good at, I got good at by learning and practicing on my own.
My father lived through an irony even worse than his dying of brain cancer: depression. I’ve known few people as successful as my dad was. He served his country in active duty with the navy and then for half a century as a government lawyer. He raised two well-adjusted kids. He owned multiple properties, established well-earned financial security, and still had time for his interests. He gave generously to charity and was regarded warmly by all.
Yet I never escaped the impression that my father’s emotional withdrawal reflected a deep-seated unhappiness. If he never acknowledged his feelings, he would never have to face them. How ironic that somebody so loved failed to appreciate himself.
Several years ago, I found the perfect Father’s Day card in a little sundries shop at the beach. For some reason, over a period of years, I kept misplacing it as Father’s Day would approach. My dad took epic, often weekend-long naps. I’ve misplaced the card again but it said something like this: “Dad, I wish I was more like you… You can sleep through anything.” Ironically, to me at least, he spent his last few weeks in a catatonic state. And then he went to his eternal rest before I was able to give him that card.
I hope that now, wherever he is, my dad can reflect on his life and his legacy and appreciate the success that he earned through his steadiness, decency, presence, and kindness. If I can’t give him the card I found at that beach shop, at least I can give him this remembrance.
When I was little, my father would bring me back t-shirts from his work trips. His favorite, for a while at least, was a pastel-hued shirt from a mythical place called “Solano Beach.” The shirt’s maker had misspelled “Solana Beach,” and my dad thought it was hilarious.
I have to believe that wherever he is, my father is taking pleasure in his botched tombstone.
Enjoy it dad. Happy Father’s Day.