I usually focus on the upbeat in this blog. With a title like Slow Happy Living, that’s to be expected. But life is lived in moments, and not all moments are happy ones.
My father passed away last week, one week after his 87th birthday. Per his wishes, there will be no service. I would like to write something by way of a eulogy but the task may be too big for me, at least for now. So I’ll just reflect a bit on his life.
His passing was not unexpected. He’d had a stroke several years ago from which he’d largely recovered. A second stroke this February was more debilitating, but he had come home and was adjusting to the use of a walker or wheelchair. He insisted that he surely would drive again soon and that he and my step-mom would take one more vacation together. Yet he worried constantly about the next stroke that he was sure would come.
The third stroke in late March was massive. He could still speak, but he was confused. He could do almost nothing without assistance. There would be no coming home from the nursing home this time. Although doctors said he might live for several more years, he never talked again about his plans for the future.
Last week he suddenly developed complications from that stroke. CFL, my daughter, and I made a quick trip south to see him. He recognized and acknowledged us. The next day he slipped into a sleep that took him away peacefully early the following morning.
My father was a proud yet humble man, a Depression-era stoic with a sometimes-difficult childhood home life. Although he attended school sporadically through the first year of high school, he told me late in his life that he’d really only had a 4th grade education.
Despite his lack of formal education, he became a scientific glassblower, a man so highly skilled in his craft that engineers struggled to design a bulb-blowing machine that could approximate the intricacy and precision of the work he did by hand. Among other accomplishments, he made a glass sensor that went into the lunar astronauts’ backpacks. Those packs were left behind when the astronauts returned to Earth. My dad’s glass sensors are still up there on the Moon.
The Moon is an appropriate home for my dad’s glasswork. He was fascinated by astronomy and used to talk to my brothers and me about the vastness of the universe. He, who had no use for institutional spirituality, made the scientific idea of infinity meaningful for me. When I contemplate the stars I hear his voice.
He had an abundant curiosity and an amazing memory for facts and data, places and times. He did long division in his head. He pored over maps. He kept records of every gallon of gasoline he put into every one of our cars.
My dad loved to travel; we took regular Sunday drives to the mountains and deserts of southern California. We hiked. We camped. We collected interesting rocks. We climbed Mt. San Antonio (Mt. Baldy), the highest peak of the San Gabriel Mountains at 10,068 feet, when I was about 9 years old. While my friends’ vacations consisted of holiday visits to grandparents, we took epic summer vacations to National Parks. He took movies, which always seemed to start with a shot of his nose as he peered into the camera lens — if they had been sound movies, you would have heard, “Is this thing on?” Why he never figured that out, I have no idea.
He was active well into middle age. He used to get us up early for Sunday morning bike rides before breakfast. There were no bike paths in those days; we’d whizz around on empty boulevards while others were still sleeping. He rode 40 miles on his 40th birthday and vowed he’d continue that tradition through the years. He rode regularly until his early 60s when my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer; then he put the bike away and stayed close by her side. My mom and he took one or two more short vacations before she became too sick to travel. After she died he tried to start riding again, but found it difficult. He was in his mid-60s, and he was no longer comfortable out on his road bike.
When he met my step-mom, he became young and energized again. It was so good to see him smiling! They traveled all over the world together, up until just a few years ago. I am so grateful that she came into his life and made his last 21 years such happy ones.
Every family has its dynamics, and my dad was not perfect. But he taught me to love learning, to see beauty in nature, and to enjoy experiences more than things.
With my dad’s passing, I suddenly find myself on the cusp. My generation is next in line to go. I have reached that moment when I suddenly look around, see myself in a mirror, and finally, fully understand that I am no longer young.
CFL and I vow to stay active for as many years as we can, while knowing that someday we too will decline and fade. What we have now are moments, and we can only strive to make the most of each of them.
Yesterday I went out for a long run along the waterfront trail. As it happened, I was out there just as 250 cyclists from the Cascade Bike Club’s annual Ride Around Washington (RAW) were coming through on their tour. I was proud to share “my” trail with these riders. I thought about how thrilled my dad would have been to ride with them.
Just as long runs did for me after Kurt died, yesterday’s long run invited and created a safe place for cleansing, healing tears.
Dad, I’ll miss you. You were the best!
Now I’m going for a bike ride.