It's Father's Day. If I were more thoughtful and a better planner I'd have something deep and meaningful to say about the importance of fathers; or something about birth fathers, and H in particular; or something about how my big brother has been a good substitute dad since my own father died.
But in thinking about Father's Day I've found my mind consumed with thoughts of my dad, who died almost four years ago. I've been missing him a lot lately, more than usual. In honor of him, the best dad in the world, I want to share something I wrote last year for a college class. I also used it as a speech in Toastmasters. Now I'm blogging it; I think my dad would be proud that I've found so many uses for this essay.
I typically write about pretty personal things, but this feels somehow more personal than usual, so please restrain any urges to critique my writing and know that it did earn me an A. This is a little long, but I think it's worth soldiering through.
When I was little, I decided that I wanted to grow up to become an astronaut. My parents were supportive, as all parents of six-year-olds are. My mother took me to the library for books on the stars and planets, and my father took me with a telescope outside on clear nights to help me find Mars. The city offered a summer kids’ program about space, and I attended with great enthusiasm, certain that the knowledge I gleaned that June and July would help me on my way to a successful career as an astronaut.
Then I discovered opera. I adored opera. I decided that my new aim in life was to headline at La Scala. I had a delicious mental image of myself wearing a horned helmet and ornate breastplate, hitting notes high enough to shatter glass. But my newfound enthusiasm came crashing down much like the chandeliers in my opera fantasy. I couldn’t be an opera singer if I was an astronaut. I turned to my parents for guidance. My mother told me, as she so often did, that I could do anything I set my mind to, and that there was no reason I couldn’t sing opera in space. My father was a bit more pragmatic.
“Well,” he said, “you might find it hard to do both. But the nice thing is that you don’t have to decide right now what you’re going to be when you’re older. You’re allowed to change your mind as many times as you want.”
“Did you ever change your mind?” I asked.
He replied that he had. It wasn’t until I was much older that I came to understand just how much his mind had changed over the years.
My father was the fifth child of a Marine Master Sergeant and a homemaker. The homemaker, my mild-mannered grandmother, has always been the kind to take life in stride and brush off awkwardness or insult with a few murmured words. Master Sergeant Barber was a horse of a different color. I’ve heard his behavior explained away with any number of diagnoses. One relative suspects Grandpa had bi-polar disorder. Another of them chalks it up to a dangerously short fuse, a gift from his Scots-Irish forefathers, ostensible pugilists. Yet another says it was his gypsy blood. But whatever the reason, every few years, my grandfather would lose his temper at work, quit his job, and move his family to a new city to start over.
This had no small impact on my dad and his brothers and sisters. While they became accustomed to frequent uprooting, they never took to it the way Grandpa did. My dad was still in Little League when he made a vow to himself that he would never, ever allow himself to turn out like his father. At this point the Barber children numbered six. The colloquialism these days is “menopause baby” but in 1965 my uncle David was simply called a surprise. My dad, who was nine, had absolutely no use for a baby brother.
“What was I supposed to do with him?” Dad said once. “I couldn’t throw a baseball to him and he couldn’t fire a pellet gun. He was useless.” Dad had no previous exposure to babies, and so his experience with David soured him on the prospect of parenthood. He decided then and there he would never have children. “I always hated kids,” he would frequently say of his younger self.
Kids were off the list, but marriage was still a possibility until his sister wed, also in 1965. Her marriage was hasty, precipitated by a surprise pregnancy (those seem to run in the family). My aunt Patty was still in college at the time, as was her new husband, and their first apartment together was, my father reported, “a hole.” The newlyweds simply couldn’t afford creature comforts. Dad added to his list of personal vows: he would never, ever be a poor, married college student.
He would, however, attend college. Bad vision killed his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, so the military was out. In the fall of 1974 he packed up his baby blue Superbeetle and moved to Flagstaff to study computer science at Northern Arizona University. He drove home on the weekends to visit his girlfriend, but his plans for the future were firmly set in his mind – a college degree, a successful career in the burgeoning computer industry, and a solitary life of academic pursuits. But the longer he dated his girlfriend, the harder it got to leave her on Sunday nights.
“One night I was driving home,” he recalled more than once, “and I realized that it physically hurt to be away from her. I decided I had to marry her.” He dropped out of college after three semesters – he was not going to be a poor married college student - and got a job working for Salt River Project. My parents married in October of 1976. My oldest brother was born the following July, and my dad must have discovered that babies aren’t so bad after all, because I am the youngest of four.
I couldn’t have asked for a better father. Sometimes he worked long hours, and he frequently threatened to throw away the toys I left on the floor, but I never doubted the depth of his love for me and my siblings. He wasn’t perfect, of course. He worked hard and he expected the same of his children, even the one who is by nature a lazy girl (that would be me). He yelled at my brothers for fighting on a regular basis. I don’t remember the words he shouted, but I do remember overhearing a subsequent conversation between my parents. My father was frustrated.
“I never wanted to be like my dad – never. And dang it, I’m just like him. Just like him!” my dad told my mother. The older I got, the more I came to realize that precious little of my father’s life had turned out according to plan. Every few years he would talk of taking a few college courses so he could finish his degree, but the money was never there, or if it was, he lacked time. SRP paid the bills but we were never wealthy. My dad did keep one promise well. He moved his family exactly twice, and both times were before my oldest brother was in school. Mine was a very stable upbringing.
I think that’s why my father’s brain cancer diagnosis was such a shock. It was unstable. It didn’t fit in anyone’s plans. “Man plans, God laughs,” my father quoted when I complained. Still, it seemed terribly unfair. Why did this have to happen to my daddy?
His attitude was the exact opposite. “Why not me?” he said more than once. “I’m not so special that I can’t get cancer.” He didn’t seem to realize that to me, he was special. He was my daddy. But I suppose he was right. He wasn’t invincible. Still, he pulled through the two surgeries that followed better than his doctors had hoped. He seemed to respond well to radiation, and the chemotherapy pills he took each month kept the cancer at bay.
We planned a family trip to Disneyland for the following year. My father knew his prognosis, but he was determined to beat the odds. He also knew that he needed to keep working until he turned 55 in order for my mother to get the best benefits when he died. He went back to work as soon as he was able, and for a little while it felt like business as usual. The only sign that anything had happened to my dad was a pencil-thin white scar that ran along his hairline, vertically bisecting his left temple.
The day before his 52nd birthday, my father attempted to write a grocery list and failed, suddenly unable to properly write his letters. We took him to the hospital. The news was bad. A snip of tumor that had, in June, been the size of a shelled peanut, was now the size of a lime. My father was going to die. Soon.
“Well,” my father said with equal parts Zen and Midwestern stoicism, “we knew this was coming, and here it is. I’m going to die.” There was a catch in his voice as he said the word “die” and I wondered if it really hit him just then as he said the words out loud.
I was stunned and devastated. I’m sure I sputtered something about out forthcoming trip, about retirement, about grandchildren. I don’t remember my words from that day, just the feeling that the laws of physics had failed me, and that a black hole had managed to open up in that curtained-off half-room, sucking away light and joy and air. But I must have listed off a number of things that my father would never get to do, because of what he said to me next.
“It’s okay,” he said. It seemed strange for him to be consoling me. After all, I wasn’t the one with a terminal cancer diagnosis. But there was a strange sort of peace about him. Several times over the next few days he would say that he didn’t much care about his own mortality but he felt awful for those of us he was going to leave behind. At that moment, he told me it was okay.
“You know, it’s not like I’ve got a list of dreams that will go unfulfilled. Nothing’s really left on my bucket list. I married a great woman, I have four children and seven grandkids and they're all on the right track. I know where I’m going when I leave this earth. I’m not going to be able to re-trace the path of Lewis and Clark, but I don’t think your mother was looking forward to that one, anyway.”
It wasn’t that he wanted to die, he explained, but he didn’t have a say in the matter, and he felt like he was as ready as a person could ever be. He’d lived all the life he’d hoped for. To him, death was just another adventure, another change of plans in a life full of them. He died a month later with one last shuddering breath that left me gasping for my own.
In the time that has passed since then, I have thought plenty about my father’s words in the hospital that day. It seemed wholly implausible that he could die without a single regret, without any unaccomplished goals. How could that be possible for a man who had once had so many ambitions? It was illogical.
But the more I think about it, the more grateful I am for that last meaningful lesson my father taught me. It’s not our grandest accomplishments that define who we are, or that even bring us the greatest sense of achievement. It’s the things that seem little that mean the most. My father was the smartest man I knew. I think he could have cured cancer if he’d put his mind to it. Instead, he died of it. But he was content with the life he led, because he had a family he loved, who loved him, and of whom he was immensely proud. It was not the life he’d planned, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t just as fulfilling. He would have made a fine fighter pilot or computer engineer. But he left a much greater legacy by being a good husband and father.
The life I’m living at present is the complete opposite of what I planned so carefully in my younger years. Sometimes I get frustrated by that. So I try to remember what I learned from my father all those years ago. It’s never too late to change your plans, and sometimes the new plans we make – the unexpected changes - can lead to much greater things than we can ever imagine.