I’m so relieved you didn’t leave us today. Nobody is ready to lose a parent. It’s not up to us to decide when it happens. Nevertheless, that ninth life is still within you, my cool cat.
For about a week, I’ve had this deep foreboding sense of doom. Mom had this odd sense, so I must have inherited it from her. Maybe it’s something we all have at some point in life. Yet this time, I was almost frantic. I thought you would die before seeing the present I sent for your 91st birthday. It’s the gift that never would have been possible if not for the dedication of both you wonderful parents. A lifelong dream of mine come true; and you’re the last living legacy largely responsible for this possibility turned reality.
Mom didn’t believe those doctors who told you I would be permanently disabled from that pre-natal brain injury. Because of her insistence and your stubborn determination, neither of you were ready to give up on me. Did you both gaze into my eyes and see the fire within me before telling those doctors to go straight to hell? No offspring of yours could be doomed to nothingness, because neither of you ever cowed from a challenge. It was logical therefore, that neither would I. You supported Mom’s efforts and encouraged her research. You withstood over two years of constant exercises, helping her find new methods to stimulate both my brain and those flaccid muscles. Then one day, your dedication and love paid off: I walked… then ran, all the way to onto my high school’s championship cross country team. I’ve never truly thanked you, other than just doing the best I possibly can in this crazy dream we know as “life.”
Thank you, Dad. You’re the best father anyone could have ever hoped for. You’re my one and only hero, and always have been. No matter where I’ve been in life, you’ve been there for me. A constant rock to marvel at, in a constant stream of boulders. I’m not ready for you to leave me. We’ve had such a wonderful life together. You’ve given me so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day, there’s no way I can fully express my gratitude. Mom died while I was four states away… I need to be there when your time comes. I want to hold your hand and say what I’ve been unable to all these years: “Thank you so very much. I love you, Daddy. Please remind Mom how much I love her too.”
As I grew, you provided what I needed to grow and succeed. Constant and repeated daily encouragement. Speech therapy. Excellent teachers. Ample father and son time. When I was placed in the classroom of an ignorant battle-axe who used the “r” word to describe me, you found a teacher who drew me out and helped me flourish. When I entered high school with a teenager’s predictable arrogance, you knocked me down a few pegs and had me placed in remedial English. When I lazed off and didn’t do my best, you laid down the law. Slothfulness was strictly prohibited; excellence was encouraged. You believed in me when I simply could not. When Miss Pat died, you diligently worked to help me find ways around my profound grief. When I wanted to give up, you forbid it. That infinite and profound love a parent has for their children wasn’t just apparent, it was obvious. It remains so to this day, as I approach 60 and you continue to beat the odds at 91.
It’s said that we don’t fully appreciate our parents until we have our own children. I’ve always been so proud of mine. They not only helped us accomplish great things, but they gave unselfishly of themselves for others. Pioneers in Arizona’s programs to improve the lives of those with developmental disabilities, their efforts ensured better lives for my brother Dan and others with special needs. Dad helped scores of former inmates find new lives once they paid their dues to society. Mom was influential in building the Special Olympics program into the respected giant in advocacy it has become.
We arrived in Arizona a few days before the dawn of 1967. Six of us (and my hamster) in a 1965 Chevy BelAir pulling the largest U-Haul trailer available. My brother Bill, who was 10 at that time, would have died of complications caused by severe asthma if they hadn’t left everything they knew and loved from our home in northern Illinois. There was no question, no debate: we packed everything we could bring, and we left. Dad carried Bill to the car, because he was too weak to walk. We spent Christmas 1966 in a St. Louis motel with a blizzard raging outside. They had little money, but we had each other. Their main focus was keeping our beloved Bill alive. Other than a distant relative, we knew nobody there. Both parents secured employment and kept us housed and fed. Within a year, they bought a house. Another year later, they moved us to Florence, the place I knew as “home.” It was a small, dusty desert town, but it was wonderful. Nearly a half-century later, our roots remain there, along with lifelong friends and wondrous memories.
As children, we have no idea what disasters our parents avoid, or what challenges confront them as we grow toward adulthood. We all yearn to escape “home,” when it’s what we so fondly remember, and yearned to return once it was too late to go back. Once we’ve tasted the acidity of adult life, it tastes eerily similar to what adolescence was like as we lived it. Only problem, adolescence is infinitely sweeter than we realize as it happens.
Having spent two of the most formative years of my childhood exclusively with my Dad, I can honestly say I’m the luckiest man on the planet. He flew me to school for two years, and then back “home” again for the weekends with Ma and my ornery brothers. How many people are so lucky? I was never abused, unlike many. We always had plenty to eat, even when my parents’ finances were tighter than a rattler’s butt. The rain never touched me as I slept, unless I allowed it to. Unconditional love wasn’t something I craved, it enveloped me in a protective sheath, wherever I was. This ideal childhood is what I’ve constantly tried to provide my own children.
We cannot choose when our parents leave us. It’s never easy, even though it’s part of life. I hope to pass on before any of my children; this will make me luckier than many of my friends and classmates. As my father does, I hope, it’s my fervent wish that my children have known the love of their father even a fraction as much as I’ve known that of my Dad. It’s what keeps me shooting ever higher.
Thanks, Dad. I hope you know now why you’re my constant, and forever, hero.