I came late in my dad's life; he was born in 1916 and my parents didn't have me until he was 44 years old. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at 54 — the same age I am for another week. I was 10 at the time, so, my formative years were dealing more with health issues than normal dad things. Most kids played catch with their dads, but because of the disease, I never really got to experience that.
But I wasn't disappointed. Most fathers teach their kids how to throw a ball. My dad thought me how to think. He had me reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Walt Whitman early in my life. He encouraged me to write. He taught me to play chess, and after beating me five or six games in a row, when I began lacking interest, he threw a game to keep me playing.
The only time he really got mad at me was when he and my mother bought a new bureau dresser. I was about 4 or 5 at the time and we were living near the zoo in Madison, Wisc. Each night in the summer, they'd leave the windows open so I could hear the lion roaring in his cage. Somehow, one evening, I got one of my mom's pins and engraved my name (in print) in that new bureau. Even then, I guess, I was trying to write. He should have sent me to a juvenile prison camp in Russia for that offense. Instead, and I vividly remember this, he was really disappointed as he spanked me. The hurt I experienced that day was not physical. It was emotional. I had let my father down. The lion's roar that night was more mournful than prideful.
I grew up as an only child in a home that was more influenced by my father's failing health. He couldn't go outside and play sports, but he taught me to watch them on television. We suffered with the Minnesota Vikings' four Super Bowl loses and the Twins' woes of the 1970s when we lived in Minnesota. He planted the sports obsession in me that remains today, and fuels the drive I do when I replay the APBA seasons.
When he was diagnosed with the bastard disease that took his life on July 24, 1970, we were at a university medical complex in Fargo, N.D. Pres. Nixon was at the same hotel we stayed to speak to a governor's counsel and we caught a glimpse of the president then. My dad, like all I'm sure, was impressed seeing a president live. But he made a point to ensure I saw Nixon as well. The day my father's world crashed with the Parkinson's diagnosis, he sheltered me from the sorrow by teaching me to draw cartoons on chalkboards in the hospital's lecture rooms. He thought it would be funny if students came to class the following day to see the chalkboards covered in my scrawlings of cats and dogs and other animals.
He did have an intellectual sense of humor. But he also laughed at fart jokes and enjoyed the bizarre, conceptual stuff. He was also a genius when it came to music; he could pick up any instrument, figure it out in a few moments and begin playing it. He also sang professionally in New York and New Jersey when he was young. Sadly, only the fart humor gene was passed along to me. I chew gum at church so it looks like I'm singing. If I belted out a tune during services, we'd lose half our congregation who'd run out and convert to atheism out of fear.
But, then I equate his talent of music for mine of the word. He could sing and play music and create. I can write. Later, when the disease really took hold, he'd not be able to go anywhere. Instead, he'd come into my room and sit, watching me play the APBA football and basketball games I had at the time. He'd ask about the games, not really caring about the results, but instead just wanting to let me know he was there and was interested in what I was doing.
I guess the best thing I can say on this Father's Day is “Thank you” to my dad. He spent his time as a father, despite being older and, when I was not even a teenager, having to deal with what eventually killed him. I can only hope to continue my life as he had, with the dignity and intelligence he showed. I hope he'd be proud.