Friday, January 8, 2010

A Timely Flood

Dad died more than eight years ago but I’ve been drowning in a flood of thoughts about him all week. The trigger was a Washingtonian magazine article written by a guy just a little older than me dealing with his Dad’s Parkinson’s disease. That nasty illness robbed my father of some great years and reading someone else’s story brings back the good, the bad and the ugly of my Dad’s final decades.

I loved Dad but I can’t really say we were close. Our rough patch lasted from mid-high school through my twenties. His attitude changed after I bought my first house.

I learned a lot from him: carpentry, problem-solving, planning, sticking to your beliefs, stubbornness. I learned but rejected other things: judgmentalism, Catholicism, racism (he eventually changed his attitude on that last one). I learned a few other things he didn’t intend to teach me, including my favorite life concept: balance.

Sadly, he was never good at emotional communication. Guys from his generation just didn’t talk about their feelings. I, on the other hand, can talk about love and five minutes later verbally beat you so far into the ground you’d beg to be hit by a baseball bat instead because it would hurt less. Maybe it’s a boomer thing; maybe it’s just me. But I digress. Wanna make something of it?

The most memorable conversation he and I had was in the living room of his house while I was waiting for the airport shuttle. He seemed to be having a moment of clarity in the midst of the Parkinson’s infused dementia. I said, “You did a great job raising your kids.” He said, “Thanks. I appreciate that.” I should have said “raising us” because it occurred to me later that he probably thought he was talking to someone else and not his son.

One thing Dad did better than anyone I know is to provide for his family. He worked his ass off to save money and lived frugally. We always had what we really needed and sometimes a little extra. For example, he was prepared to pay for my college with only one condition: that it was local, unless what I wanted to study was not available locally. I chose the state school, even though he was ready to pay for the private college that costs ten times more.

The Parkinson’s was diagnosed before he retired, so he continued to work as long as he could in order to save more money. He knew his later years would be expensive for him and Mom. He retired with what seemed to be a lot of money for a guy who never made a lot of money and he had zero debt. But the effects of the Parkinson’s made it nearly impossible for him to enjoy his retirement years and most of his savings were gone by the time he died.

What lessons did I learn from that? Plan for the future but live in the present. Have a boat handy if the flood comes. When you see the water, get in the boat. Enjoy the ride because you might tip over and drown at the next intersection.

If you know me really well you can understand how timely these lessons are for me. You also know how one magazine article can lead to this jumble of thoughts that to me seem totally and logically connected. It's all about balance.

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