Saturday, April 05, 2008

Leave Footsteps, Take Memories

My father has died and I couldn't be happier.

I know what that must sound like: that I'm cold and cruel and heartless. The truth is that I'm heartbroken. His passing has robbed my mother of a companion, one with whom she would have celebrated 55 years of marriage this June. It takes from my sister and me and our families a parent and grandparent, one of whom we were proud and who was proud of us. And it takes from the world a kind and generous soul, a commodity of which there is too small a supply.

But since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 10 years ago, and especially over the last 3 years as he has spiraled ever downward, it has been tough to watch the man I called Dad disappear before my eyes. My mom did more than any person could ever be expected to do to make him whole, tending to his every need even as he withdrew further and further from her and from the rest of us. Each time that we gathered as a group to laugh and talk and catch up, it was obvious that he was moving more and more into his own private world.

One emergency led to another, with only one eventual end in sight. And so hard as it was, we took this latest crisis was a sign that the time had come to admit that no one… not him, not her, not us… was being served by the best efforts that she and modern medicine could offer. There's an old proverb that if you love something you set it free. If it's yours, it will come back. If not, it was never yours to begin with. With my dad I respectfully disagree: we set him free precisely because he was ours and we loved him, and he left for the very same reasons.

I have tried to think of one single event, one seminal moment that defined him and who he was. But all that comes to me is a random series of images and stories. There was the time as little kids when we lived on a big hill and we sledded to the bottom laying on his back. The time he came home from work carrying a small stray dog who we quickly adopted and named "Pomy" after the name of the store in which he worked. The time when we visited the cliffs of New Mexico, and watched him sweat bullets from the hair raising drive up to the top, so much so that we had to have a park ranger drive us back down. And the time that my mother came home with a streak of blond frosted into her hair.  My father walked in from work and growled. "What is that? How would you like it if I did that?" My sister replied without missing a beat, as only a 9 year-old smart-aleck can: "Dad, they would have to paint your forehead."

Rather, his life personified that old admonition when camping, "Leave only footsteps, take only memories." He touched the lives of many in a gentle way, from his years in Boy Scouts to his time with colleagues to his embracement of family and friends. He was always there to support and encourage my sister and me, or buy a small gift for my mother "just because."  I can't think of anyone who met him and who didn't come away to say to me later, "Your dad? Salt of the earth." I finally looked up the textbook definition of that phrase: it's "humble, lacking pretension." My mom said it best: he was one of the good guys.

If there was anything I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a musician. I had a taste of it as a kid, playing saxophone in a jazz band thru high school. But as I progressed to the next level, I learned that enthusiasm did not trump talent. So I tried a different avenue, and exchanged my instrument for a pen. And while my dad had the chance to hear me play when I was young, he also had a chance to read my stuff when I was older. And at some level, that was better.

That's because instead of doing other people's material, I was able to do my own, albeit on a small stage of my own making. It also enabled me to pay tribute to him on his 60th and 70th birthdays, in words that hopefully conveyed a least a small part of what he meant to me. I would gladly have done another on his 80th. Instead, here I am, just shy of his 79th, writing a different type of piece.

Still, there was a common theme in those past attempts, one that hopefully echoes in this present one as well. They tell you that you can't say "I love you" enough to a child. I've come to realize that neither could I say it too much to him. I tried in print, I tried in speech, I tried in actions. But this is when you realize that no matter the method or the frequency, it is never enough.

So on this day there will be no parades in London. Congress will pass no resolution. No radio station will devote an hour of its programming to singing his praises. There will not be a national day of mourning, schools will not close and traffic will not cease. For my dad wasn't a remarkable historical figure, or a man of great wealth and power, or an individual whose influence transcended his times.

But in the final analysis, none of that matters. For he accomplished what all of us strive for. I can only hope that my kids remember me the way I will remember him: as a gentle soul who loved and supported those around him, who always gave someone the benefit of the doubt and who tried to do the best he could with the what he had. He left footsteps. I will take memories. And when you think about, that's a pretty good legacy to leave behind.


Marc Wollin lives in Bedford, NY. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.