Today is my dad’s birthday. There’s no celebration planned because he died years ago, when my two oldest children were young and my youngest was not yet even an idea. The only person I might have called to wish a “Happy Dad’s birthday” to was my brother and, even though the pain of his loss is still fresh, he, too, has been gone for more than 15 years.
There have been many times that I described my father as a man who “raised difficulty to the level of an art form” and, while those words still resonate with me, I have come to realize in recent years that his being “difficult” was also coupled with my lack of tolerance and, frankly, my failure to understand.
My dad was born in Poland and lived through anti-Semitism as a part of daily life. He told stories about being chased by a gang of boys who were throwing rocks at him and calling him a “dirty Jew.” He talked about climbing in a tree to hide and being chased down by the property owner whose words were not much different than the youths who were harassing him.
Coming to this country as a teenager, he was a self-taught and self-made man who gave his all to master the things he did. He worked as a circulation manager for the newspaper for many years and left that, at his brother’s request, to work with him in his new appliance business. Dad sold appliances to dealers throughout a broad region, a job he had never done nor wanted but he pushed himself to learn and to achieve and for all the years he played that role, captured national sales awards.
The business closed when I was in elementary school and Dad (who married at 48) was in his 50’s. And despite a desire to do so, he never went back to work, never found the right thing, never achieved the success he was so driven to achieve. My mother went back to work right around the same time, intending to help out a former employer for two weeks and staying for 17 years, the rest of her life.
Dad was home with us. He was the one who’d be there when we came home for lunch and when we got home from school. He’d spend his days reading and managing his stock portfolio so when we came home, he was eager to talk with us, eager to talk about what homework we had to do and to discuss any assignments that he thought interesting. History was always a favorite and sometimes our discussions were longer than the assignments or papers that we wrote.
When I was 10, my dad’s only sister was fighting cancer. She was 46 when diagnosed and, although I had no idea what was wrong, I knew something was wrong. In the midst of her fight, her husband had a massive heart attack and died. Dad went into high gear, running across town to her home at least three times a day, making sure her children were okay, spending time with her, bringing us back to spend every evening together.
She died less than a year later and Dad sank into a depression that marked most of the rest of his life. He was angry, often with my mother and spent days not talking with her. I, the peace maker, was the go between, bringing messages between the two camps of silence. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50, his reaction was not support, it was more anger, anger that hurt her and confused the 15 year old me.
In the twelve years of Mom’s cancer fight, he was not always the caring and loving man he could be. But at the end, he, once again, became the compassionate caregiver. And the last morning of her life she waited for him to get to the hospital. He took her hand and she drew her last breath. Dad lived nine more years, years in which I often felt I was helpless to meet his needs and frustrated at his expectations. His late night phone calls complaining of chest pain were difficult for me to handle. I was 1000 miles away with two small children. My advice to call an ambulance would result in him hanging up the phone on me. And when I would call back, he would invariably tell me that “if I were a good daughter” I would be there, taking care of him.
And yet. And yet. Through the lens of my life today I see the emotional pain that he never recovered from, a pain I can understand with my own loss. I had a life that absorbed me, small children, a career, a compassionate and supportive spouse, family and friends whom I allowed to hold my hand along the journey. I see the frustrations he struggled with, the dreams he never realized, and the life that he never felt lived up to his expectations.
My parents were both gone before I was in my middle 30’s and I missed the opportunity to see them differently, to understand them with the eyes of an adult rather than a child. How much richer life would have been for all of us had I been able to understand more fully and see more clearly. What an opportunity, if we have it, not to waste.