When our son Liam was in kindergarten and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, “A grandpa.” At the time, my mom and dad were our kids’ main babysitters. My dad was about 63 and deep in the throes of his second childhood, after his recent retirement from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Little Liam saw in my dad something not evident in many other grown-ups: A commitment to play. My dad was on two senior softball teams, was rarely beaten in club table tennis, ran several miles a few days a week, taught both boys poker during their after-school time together and never tired of pitching the whiffle ball in the backyard or shooting baskets in the driveway. I could see why Liam selected being a grandpa for his future career — his grandpa was bouncy and fun, and approached adulthood with a childlike flair.
Still, I couldn’t allow Liam to believe he could hop right from childhood to grandfatherhood. “Liam, Grandpa hasn’t always been a grandpa,” I explained. “He worked in an office for many years. When your own kids grow up and have children, then you can be a grandpa. But first, you will need another job.”
Liam looked bewildered but accepted the explanation. I couldn’t tell if he was more taken aback that his future held responsibilities beyond Tuesday morning softball, or that his all-recess-time grandfather actually had a desk job at one point.
Liam is 25 now, out of college and a few years into his own career, with an aggressive approach to retirement savings and various after-work sports leagues. My dad is 83 and has started to slow down in the last year. He played softball in the over-55 league deep into his 70s and only stopped when he noticed he was uncharacteristically out of breath running to second base. Medical testing led to a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes lung tissue to become damaged. For the first three years after his diagnosis, my dad managed to continue to play competitive table tennis, keep up his many volunteer activities and run for short distances, but this past winter, a bout with COVID-19 landed him in the hospital. The virus compromised his lungs further, and he needed supplemental oxygen. Now, eight months later, his lungs are worsening and even walking across the room with his always-present oxygen is difficult.
And as my dad struggles to breathe, I am aware that like little Liam, I see much in my dad that I hope to be someday. If we are fortunate, we each have a few people in our lives whom we have the privilege to walk (or run) beside. Just a few people that we get to see consistently enough and who trust us enough to show us their whole selves, and to whom we can also reveal ourselves.
Except for a year volunteering in Chicago as a young adult, I’ve never lived more than a few miles from my parents. I see them about once a week, and my dad and I became daily texters sometime along the way. My dad has taught me the power of being a witness to the life of another. He has rooted for me, and for our entire family, through our greatest trials and triumphs, always interested, always optimistic that even in the darkness, some light might be around the next corner. I want to become that for my own adult children. I want to talk with them, text them and cheer for them in such a way that they can one day recognize me as a nonjudgmental witness to how they navigate the complexity of their lives.
I want to grow to approach my faith like my dad. It deepened as he got older, and just beyond middle age, he read “Why Not Be a Mystic?” by Frank X. Tuoli and embraced a practice of centering prayer that seemed at odds with his on-the-go personality. He has kept up the practice for decades and speaks to its power and the presence of God he experiences. With an inability to sit still, and a brain that resists quieting, I’ve dabbled in centering prayer with no consistency. I’m now almost at the age my dad started, so maybe I will mature into it. It’s on my to-do list.
My mom has always been my dad’s first priority, and I have marveled at how they are able to bring together their vastly different skill sets and personalities, and make a whole that is much greater than their individual parts. My mom and dad together ground our family with their almost 56 years of mutual respect and commitment. Their marriage is the platform for my sister and me, for our husbands and children. They look first to each other in every decision. As my dad weakens, I see my mom working so hard to make up for the new deficits. She has started lifting weights so as to be able to more easily move the walker and lift the wheelchair out of the car. And in his illness, my dad turns to my mom constantly for her opinion, making sure his next medical move is one she agrees with. As my dad suffers, my mom suffers too, and yet they matter-of-factly continue daily tasks together. I hope that Bill and I will have such grace.
If Liam’s comment about being a grandpa someday propelled me into the future, my dad’s illness has made me reflective about the past. My dad spent as much time on the bleachers watching my sister and me and our kids compete in sports as he did participating on his own teams. No matter whether it was basketball, soccer, volleyball, track or Ultimate Frisbee, we could always count on my dad’s strong cheer from the stands. “Hey, hey!” he’d yell. It was a hey of encouragement, a hey that you’ve got this, a hey that he believed in us and whatever we were about to do on that court, field or track.
And now, as normal activities become feats of endurance for my dad, as his lungs fight against him and he continues to persevere, it is our turn to cheer, loudly, and as a family with one voice.
Hey, hey, Dad!
Thank you for teaching us how to be.