I have often wondered how my father survived a dysfunctional family, the horrors of the war, the loss of his nearly four-year-old daughter to leukemia, the sudden end of his career for medical reasons, and finally the loss of his wife after 58 years of marriage. Any one of those experiences would have damaged most people.
But Dad wasn’t most people. Perhaps my vision is clouded as his youngest, his only surviving daughter and, for seven years, his caregiver. Maybe the magnetic attraction I feel to ponder his bigger-than-life story is a father-daughter thing. Whatever it is, I’ll take it. Dad has been gone for 14 months and I still learn from him every day.
I was there when Mom died, at the moment her heart finally gave out at the end of a three-and-a-half month struggle with late stage lung cancer. He was steadfast at her bedside, holding and stroking her hand, looking in to her eyes and telling her he loved her and would see her again. She died connected to him.
In the hours and days after that loss, Dad felt that severance as an open wound. He did not know how he would survive it. We all knew the survival statistics for men who suffer the loss of a life-long mate.
As he reflected out loud about their life together, he asked, “How can I live without her?” Over time, within weeks, that rhetorical question subtly changed. It became, “How can I live without her?” And then, “How will I live without her?”
In his questions are clues to Dad’s survival strategy.
With the first question, he assessed brutal reality. Can I survive this? Do I want to? Can I imagine life without Eileen?
Slowly, the “how” came into his inner dialogue. Dad the planner began to emerge. He began to focus on what lay ahead even if it was as simple as assembling the groceries for the four meals he said he knew how to make. He was a realist, and not an escapist. He began to imagine making it, in a world without Mom, day by day. His image of himself was eminently practical: a guy who would rise around seven, make coffee, feed the dog, read the paper, prepare some oatmeal, do some chores, go for a walk, have lunch, take a nap, read a book, make dinner and retire at ten after a few TV shows. Thrown in there somewhere was the endless maintenance of his collection of hunting guns, and perhaps a few calls to line up skeet shooting or fishing junkets with one of his sons or his friend, Bob.
After the massive heart attack that forced his retirement from the Marine Corps, I imagine that Dad’s view of his future self changed radically. He was in his mid-40s, a guy being watched for higher command, a Colonel with all the right prior postings. That guiding occupational dream drove him.
After finding himself out on the curb, his motivation changed. Everything, everything in him aimed at the seemingly insurmountable task of recreating a professional career that could support his wife and four children, none of whom had yet completed college.
“Be clear about your objective” was more than a military tenet. To Dad, it was a commandment. After keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table, his number one goal to secure our education.
Pursuing his objective left little time for leisure. What time he had went to connecting with the outdoors, a source of succor throughout his life. Wading the banks of a promising trout stream or crunching through the stubble of a shorn, frozen wheat field in search of pheasants was his idea of a vacation. Whenever possible, he would share that transporting experience with his children.
Although his dream had been sacrificed, Dad never expressed bitterness. Mom wasn’t above assuming a little high dudgeon about what would have happened if Dad had been able to continue his career, but her comments were never a complaint or rebuke. Dad could easily have looked at his abrupt departure from the Marines as a failure, but I never sensed such a deflation in his self-esteem. A door closed, another had to open. Had to, to educate his children. His sense of self worth was tied up in taking care of us, not stroking his own ego.
A recent Scientific American Mind article described the work of psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which sought to identify universal values that might guide one’s life. Constructing them as a compass:
At the north is a universalistic orientation, which includes tolerance… and self-directed thought. To the east are hedonism… and personal achievement in the eyes of others…..Moving southeast, one can find dominance…. To the south is a believe in the importance of security and safety…., and to the west are humility and caring….
A related study by Ravenna M. Helson, Ph.D., of UC Berkeley divided women into four groups over the course of their lives: seekers, conservers, achievers and “depleteds.” “Conservers valued tradition, family, security and hard work (the south of the compass). The achievers wanted both personal growth and the ability to excel at what they did (covering an area along Schwartz’s compass from the north to the east),” Scientific American Mind reported.
Those who identified as “conservers” were the most content.
Dad knew who he was, even as he worked through jarring crises. He knew what he wanted, even as his goals changed. He did not waste time longing for things outside of his practical reach. And he knew what he wanted to leave behind.
He never talked about his legacy, but if he had, it would have been for the four of us to have satisfying lives with children or people we love, acting with integrity and ready make a difference – however small – in the lives of those around us. Nothing grandiose. Nothing impractical. Just an immutable sense of self in service to others.