Wisdom from my dad on his 80th birthday
Today my dad turns 80 years old. Even typing that out seems impressive. It sounds a lot older than I feel like my dad is. It makes me feel older than I feel like I am. I don’t feel like I’m old enough to have an 80-year-old father, and although my dad is not as spry as he used to be, I don’t think he’s old enough to be 80.
But the math checks out. He was born in 1937 and has a fuzzy memory of his fourth birthday being completely overshadowed by Pearl Harbor, which of course he didn’t understand at all. He’s buried countless friends, both parents, his younger sister, and two of his three children. A complex, brilliant, and sometimes difficult man, he’s been married and divorced five times. He is one of my very favorite people.
He was 42 when I was born, and I remember realizing early on that he was older than a lot of my friends’ parents. When I was in second grade, we sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” in music class, and that was the first time it occurred to me that my father was going to die, just like little Jackie Paper. (I was a weird, intense kid who has grown up into a weird, intense adult.) When I saw my dad that night, I burst into tears and demanded that he reassure me that he would live forever. He wouldn’t promise that, but we compromised on 120, and I fully expect him to keep up his end of the deal.
He’s not exactly the typical dad – he doesn’t make dad jokes or wear goofy sweaters; he was never overprotective of me or concerned with who I dated (except once, when I dated a guy who turned out to be the grandson of a guy who had tried to have an affair with my dad’s second wife and my dad heard the last name and instantly took a dislike to the poor guy). But he has given me a lot of useful advice and life skills over the years, most notably:
- If you can read, you can do anything. My dad taught me how to read in 1984 on the porch of our duplex on DeSoto Street using flash cards made on the back of Gail Glapion bumper stickers. And of all the things I know how to do today, reading is probably my favorite. Even other things I like to do, such as cooking and baking, are made easier/possible by reading. (It’s true that these days, you can learn how to do most things by watching a YouTube video instead, as my kids often remind me, but I’m much more comfortable with having the written words to reinforce the directions.)
- Basic home improvement skills. When I graduated high school, my dad gave me a fully stocked toolbox. At the same party – my graduation party – he gave my sister a pair of family heirloom earrings. I was hurt and furious at the time – it was my graduation; my sister hadn’t done anything! And I got stupid screwdrivers while she got jewelry? But now, 20 years later, my sister seven years dead, and with two kids of my own, I get it. I get why he gave a present to my sister on a significant milestone for me. And I get that he was giving me a gift far better than earrings: the gift of knowing I could take care of myself. I still have the toolbox, and in the past two years, I’ve fixed the garbage disposal, the washer, and the deadbolt on the front door. (I have the earrings now, too, although I very much wish I didn’t.)
- Don’t be afraid of cocaine. Be afraid of people who really, really like cocaine. Again, maybe not standard dad advice (and definitely not applicable to my life), but really pretty solid on its face.
Happy birthday, Dad! You still owe me 40 more!