What my dad taught me–and I learned (and didn't)

Cat with Daddy, 1962My dad, David Morgan White, died last September. September 12 at just after 10 in the evening, to be more precise. I had been with him for most of the previous 60 hours. It was a long 60 hours–especially the last 12. We gathered on Sunday morning when the doctors removed the IVs that contained the drugs that were keeping his battered heart going: the coumidin, the lasix, and a bunch of stuff I can’t remember. It wasn’t doing him any good any more. He was conscious and looked around at all of us and said, “If you’re ready, I am.” And the nurse disconnected all the drugs except the morphine, which was making his remaining life tolerable.

The doctors told us that he would go quickly without his support meds–they were wrong. A few hours later, just before noon, my dad woke up and looked around at all of us with a rather surprised expression on his face. “What’s taking so long?” he asked. My mother looked thunderstruck (I know understand what that expression looks like), “Well! What kind of a question is that?” My brother-in-law tried to be philosophical, “These things aren’t in our hands.” Me? I burst out laughing, “Well, you’re the math guy.” He seemed to think about that and slept again. Aside from answering nurses’ questions, he didn’t speak again.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve learned from him, one way or another. And what I didn’t.

My dad taught me all kinds of great stuff. How to ride a two-wheel bike (he taught my mom, too, after he gave her her first bike when she was 16). How to shoot pictures with his Kodak 35mm camera from the 1950s (I used that camera until I graduated from high school in 1980, when he bought me my first 35mm camera). How to change my oil and my tires and my motherboard. How to run a new electrical outlet and connect it to a new breaker. How to bleed brake lines.

That the only race is “human.” I tested him on that and he passed.

But I might have learned the most from what he tried–so hard–to teach me that I had a hard time with. When I was 12 or 13, I really struggled with math. Specifically algebra. Letters are NOT numbers. Math is done with numbers. And what’s this business with the minus signs? I just did not get it. So he tried to teach me. Every evening. To no avail. But I did cry a lot. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few weeks of torture, he got out his big American Heritage Dictionary and told me to look up “perseverance.”

I, of course, refused. I knew it had to be some sort of synonym for “stupid.” We went round and round and I finally gave in. Of course I learned that it meant to not give up. That was his greatest lesson to me. It turned out to be everywhere.

To complicate this weekend, my parents would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on this past Friday the 17th. Talk about perseverance. I always wanted to talk to him about how they did it–because I know it was not easy. Both of my parents had health issues from early in their marriage: Hodgkin’s Disease, depression, backs that ended up in traction, and a lot more. The most serious crisis was my dad’s heart attack when he was 49. My current goal is to make it to the end of 2011 without a major health incident.

There is a lesson that I did not learn directly–how to stay with someone for over 50 years (they made it, if you count their courtship and engagement). How to be truly self-sacrificing, giving, loving, and faithful through the thin and REALLY thick. Through the hospitals, doctors, children’s marriages (OK, so mostly mine), children’s divorces (OK, so mostly mine again), and all the moves. They had a record I hope never to tie or break: four moves in one year (I think it was when I was five). But they did teach me how to hang in there with the right person (who I finally found). To hold hands for 50 years. To still kiss hello and goodbye. To say “I love you.”

He never taught me all the intricacies of electronics–but he tried. On the heels of the math tutoring he started me on “electronic lessons.” Spiral notebooks full of equations (it was like algebra all over again!!) that I did not get. More tears. And finally he gave up. But, decades later, he and I talked at length about science. Theories, discoveries, ideas–no equations. Some of the times in the past 10 months when I have missed him the most have been when I heard about some new scientific development that I know would have really tickled or intrigued him. And I could not talk about it with him.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that, after rejecting his suggestion when I was a freshman in college that I “do something practical, like computers or business,” I took over managing the IT department at my school, two months after my dad passed away. He would have loved knowing that.

Dad's Chilton's manualHe taught me to appreciate and study current events. To love documentaries and non-fiction. To follow politics, be skeptical, but vote like it means something. To be able to read, understand, and follow directions. After he passed away, I took photos of his books. My favorite is the grease-fingerprinted Chilton’s manual, repaired with duct tape.

In the end, I wish I had learned how to have the Hard Conversation. The one that starts out, “Dad, you don’t seem to be doing so well. Do you want to talk about your death?” I never did that. I really wish I had. I wish I had known, at the end, what he wanted as a memorial (for the record, I want to be a Reef Ball). I didn’t know how. We did the best we could, but we didn’t really know.

Part of it gets back to the perseverance thing. He was so fixed on living that it seemed to be inappropriate to discuss his dying–even in the midst of it. For 25 years, he taught me about perseverance by living it. That may be what kept him hanging around a lot longer at the end–his body refused to give up.

So, along with all of the lessons that he actively taught, I take away the ones he taught inadvertently: Show affection to those you love. Have the difficult conversations. Acknowledge your mortality and prepare for it. Live every day you are given. Appreciate the mysteries of life and share them with others. Keep learning.

So this Father’s Day, the first without a father to give a card to, I try to give him his due anyway.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. I’d like to think you are hanging out with Einstein, getting all those answers you always wanted.

Categories: Family/Marriage

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2 replies »

  1. Cat,

    This is a very touching piece. I lost my Dad almost 20 years ago, and to this day I am still reminded of the things I learned from him – both postive and negative. As I sit here, I can still hear his voice. I also regret not talking to him at the end about his death, and I continue to have moments in which I wish I could talk to him about something I read or heard that I know would interest him or strike him funny.

    While they do indeed eventually leave us, it appears they remain with us until our very end.

  2. My Dear Cathy,

    This was a wonderful tribute to your dad. It brought a tear to my eyes and it pulled at my heart. I think of your dad often. I used to like to drop by once and a while and visit your parents. I tried to get ahold of your mom last week. Wanted to take her out to eat. Try again later.