Today is my dad’s birthday.
As I think of him today and the many odd and unexpected blessings that were gathered to me in this last year of his life, the blessings that I am trying to capture here for Sean and for me so that we might recall them on some distant day, what comes to mind is how contented he was in all circumstances and the goodness it added to my life.
My dad was a simple guy.
That’s not to say he wasn’t smart. He was good with numbers and had an intuitive knowledge of words, thanks to the Latin he learned as an altar boy. He was loaded with common sense and had a terrific memory – some of the same qualities I see in Sean.
He never went to college, he never had an important job, never ran a company, never managed any one, nor did he want to. But he was smart enough know this: It’s not the finer things in life that bring joy but the simple things.
As a foolish teenager, I saw his contentedness with his modest middle-class life as a lack of ambition, and it is with shame that I confess that I had some resentment about that, that he was not terribly concerned about seeing to it that I get the material things I craved.
Eventually, after life knocked me around a bit, I learned that no amount of stuff you can accumulate will add one drop of goodness to life, but rather will usually get in the way of it if for no other reason than the pursuit of such things robs you of your most precious resource – time.
I’ve often wondered what is it that makes some people content and others restless? For Dad, I think the fact that he always thought of himself as a pretty lucky guy was at the center of his contentment. He wasn’t one of those annoying perpetually “glass is always half full” sunny side up guys, but he was grateful for the good things that rolled his way and I guess he felt like more good came his way than bad, or at least on the important matters.
In the early 1950s dad went into the army with three buddies. There is a picture of the four of them standing together on the day they got their orders. Three were sent to Korea or elsewhere where they were either killed or witnessed unspeakable horror. But Dad shipped out to Germany, where he said it was like being on vacation.
He went skiing in the Alps, he went to Oktoberfest, he saw the great cathedrals and historic sites of Europe – but most importantly he came home. He was lucky. The only part of being in the Army that he didn’t like was the boat ride over and back. One time I offered to take him and mom on an Alaskan cruise and he shook his head. “No thanks,” he said, “I was on a big boat once in the army and I have no desire to do that again.” I could have argued that a cruise boat was not exactly like the army, but sometimes Dad could be stubborn.
When he got out of the Army, the first thing he did was marry my mother, and if not one other thing went right in his life, marrying her would have made him feel like the luckiest guy who ever lived. They bought a 50-year-old fixer upper and spent the next 58 years fixing it up and tending to the details of middle-class life: three kids, boy scouts, bicycles, too much week for too little paycheck, too cold winters, too short summers, old cars replaced by newer old cars, employment and unemployment, grandkids and then great-grandkids.
And it seems to me, and to those he left behind, those 58 years passed more quickly than the time it took you to read these ramblings.
When the cancer diagnosis came in April of last year, he didn’t feel so lucky. He was having a great time in his retirement years with my mother and wasn’t ready for that to come to an end.
In time though, when the shock wore off, he came back around to seeing that even in the midst of awful, he was a lucky guy. He had a wife and three children who would see to it that he felt well loved and well cared for to the very end. He had seen his children raised and he knew he knew he could count on us to look after our mother. He had outlived all but one of his life long friends. He had enjoyed much sweetness and little bitterness in life. And somewhere, beyond this life, he knew something wonderful was waiting for him. What more could one hope for?
So on this day that would have been his 82nd birthday, I think of my dad and what a blessing it was to be raised by a man who thought of himself as a lucky guy and how he lived his life in pursuit and appreciation of simple things that neither rust nor moths will destroy.
It is a rich inheritance.