My dad was a writer. He was also a college psychology professor, a devoted member of his church, a friend to many priests and nuns, a husband, a father.
He was in his mid-50s when I was born. (I was the last of four children – a late in life surprise.) He remembered living through the Great Depression. He served in World War 2 in the navy.
He took me sailing in a boat he called the Sea Star. He taught me how to rig.
He let me have a taste of beer from his can on a camping trip. I thought it was awful.
He was as old as my friends’ grandfathers but often more involved in home life than many of my friends’ dads, thanks to a lifetime of helping his mother care for a disabled brother. He had no hangups about domesticity.
He taught me the games he played as a kid – cans connected by string; sitting on a stool with a paper clip on a string, fishing for paper fish laid out on the floor; making up radio shows with a tape deck. He passed down his love of the ocean to me. And storytelling.
My dad did something else: he made me feel like my stories mattered. Before I could write, I’d tell him stories that he wrote down for me, planting the seed that I had a voice worth listening to. (Most of my stories were re-hashes of the stories he told me, which, truthfully, stole quite a bit from Lewis and Tolkien – but no matter.) When I could write, he’d delight in the stapled-together books I’d produce, complete with “author’s bio” on the back cover. When I could type, he allowed me to spend countless hours writing never-finished short stories and plays on his precious word processor in his home office, before he even had a computer.
My father died on his 89th birthday in 2013. As it so often happens, a physical fall and spine fracture triggered the mental switch, pushing him faster into dementia, then Alzheimer’s. He spent his last few months in a nursing home in the same town where I live, which meant I was fortunate to spend many days there with him. Partly to process my grief, partly because it’s what I do, I kept a journal in my bag on every visit.
Sometimes I’d write down observations. Sometimes I’d write down our conversations to preserve moments of lucidity – and occasionally, stunning clarity. Sometimes I’d write down a question and show it to him to see if he could still read it and answer. Sometimes, he could. I fell back on my journalism training. When so much failed to make sense, I could always understand how to interview people. So I interviewed my father.
I’m not often able to actually read the journal.
While I was living and writing those experiences, flashes of a story began arriving—about a young girl who spends a lot of time at a nursing home—and I began to write it, though it took years to finally understand what the book was about. Even now that it’s done, I still keep realizing new meanings in it, and they are often the values that my dad emphasized so often: selfless love and sacrifice.
He wasn’t perfect, but he was such a good dad.